For me, as a member of Michigan's organic community, I am deeply concerned by the alleged connection between an organic farmer and this act of terrorism. My concern, however, takes a form considerably different from that popularly pursued by the media. I am not puzzling over why an organic farmer would have ammonium nitrate on his farm. [In fact, it now appears that there was no ammonium nitrate, only calcium nitrate for a conventionally (not organically) grown corn crop. And at this point in the investigation, James Nichols can only be considered innocent.] Neither am I interested in whether this tragic 'event' will adversely affect Michigan's tourist industry. Indeed, I find the shallowness of these inquiries far more troublesome than any possible answer.
What concerns me is a larger issue and one which did not begin in Oklahoma City but was only forced upon us there. My concern is simply this. Over the last several years, I have noticed that persons drawn to organic methods of farming and to visions of greater local autonomy can also harbor isolationist, fundamentalist and paramilitaristic sentiments - in other words, they can be sympathetic to violent and repressive solutions to social problems. I find this association deeply troubling and it is in the interest of understanding why organic agriculture might 'appeal' in this way, that I have written what follows.
Individualism and Competition:
In an effort to come to some partial understanding of the issues sketched above (for there can be no single or simple answer), I have tried to place them within a larger economic and political context and to frame them within a prevailing ideology or mindset. In this regard, I have found considerable explanatory power in the exaggerated sense of individualism that we share as members of this society and in our preoccupation with competition. These twin concepts swirl around us incessantly. Embodied in Rambos and in hostile take-overs, they have become a familiar and approved form of self-expression and interaction. The video games that absorb so much of our children's attention (and substitute for group play) are graphic examples. With few exceptions, the object of these games is for an individual player (an eight year old competitor) to overcome and ultimately destroy an evil opponent, frequently picking up jewels, coins and power along the way. Winning is the object, the reason to play the game. How much different, we might wonder, is this rationale from industry's relentless drive to capture increased market share, nationally and internationally, and, in the process, to eliminate the competition.
We are encouraged to operate and succeed as individuals, not as group members or community members. Increasingly, our identity is defined by our competitive success. Our competitive success, in turn, is expressed through our private property, through our consumptive patterns and possessions. As long as we continue to 'win', which means as long as we continue to expand our individual position vis a vis the marketplace, we can rationalize the outcome as 'the natural order of things,' 'the way life was meant to be.' Under such conditions, 'winning' easily becomes a justification for 'efficiency,' for 'God's will,' or for 'genetic superiority.'
By the same logic, those who have had less success maintaining their consumptive patterns and possessions grow marginal and inherently less worthy. From this social darwinist perspective, we attribute far more importance to our government's role in protecting an individual's right (and it can be a corporate individual) to compete and to keep the spoils of his/her/its competition, than we do to our government's role in protecting alternative lifeways and forms of expression. In the wake of a growing divide between the 'haves' and the 'have nots,' we continue to privatize, to place natural and production resources (e.g., genes, land, ideas), social and human services under competitive, market-driven control.
But what happens when we don't win, when we have played the competition game according to what we believe are the rules and either lose outright or gain far less than we believe is 'our due'? Such an outcome is painfully familiar to many of us, to farmers, to rural residents, to the underemployed, to the unemployed. It has led to personal frustration and anger and a sense of having been cheated. But who has cheated us? Who has taken what we have lost? Where do we fix the blame? How do we change the outcome?
Clearly, the way we view the problem influences what we see as a possible solution. The primacy of the individual and the sanctity of competition describes a world of scarcity and unsatisfied needs. In such a world, it is possible to argue that 'my loss is your gain,' or that 'your good fortune comes at my expense.' Given this assessment, blame can be externalized, placed at the doorstep of 'others.' All too frequently, these 'others' are women, minorities, 'foreigners' - persons already at a competitive disadvantage. Blame can also be placed at the doorstep of government for the many real and imagined regulations and restrictions it places on our self-determination and self-actualization.
We can see how such an analysis, when taken to extremes, can lead to the renunciation of all external authority, to survivalist strategies, to anti-government invective, to hate and terrorism. So many of us empathize, I believe, because we are so tightly enmeshed in the system and so uncritical of its logic. But we've embraced a dangerous and flawed analysis of our problems. First, it lends itself to paranoia and to conspiracy theories, and thus to further fear, isolationism and repression rather than greater freedom and opportunity. (We need only remember how quick we were to believe that a Middle Easterner was responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing. And how willing we are to accept further externally-promulgated restrictions to insure our safety.) Second, such analysis does not identify the real cause of our distress. It does not question the larger system that oppresses us, but rather takes it as given.
The cause of our problem is not politics or the government, at least not directly. The problem, I feel, lies in the nature of our economy and in the way it has come to dominate our values, our behavior and our daily lives. We have all 'bought into' (some of us more 'successfully' than others) a system that rewards capital, indeed, that obsesses on capital. We have reduced our reason for being and for interacting with others to a figure called the 'bottom line.' And in the process we have deeply discounted such things as community, beauty, trust, spontaneity, spirituality and long-term survival.
We seem to ignore the fact that we are wedded to an extractive economy, one that creates income and thus value only through the consumption (i.e., the destruction) of resources. The more we destroy, the more we can produce. The more we produce the more we must consume. The more that is consumed, the greater the wealth that can be generated. Or, so the logic goes. Growth is essential for maintaining this economic system. Greed and competition are equally essential and likewise theoretically limitless. By contrast, the natural resource base on which this all ultimately depends is not limitless. We are living in the short-term and we are consuming our own life support systems. And in the process, we are creating real scarcity and greater competitive pressure for survival. Yet, the strangest part of all is that most of us are not displeased with the system as it is, just with our place within it.
So what are we to do? Do we slug it out, each claiming our right to be the last 'winner', protecting our 'things' with guns and survivalist tactics, or bombing governmental offices to make our individual statements, or do we rethink the nature of the system? Do we search, in other words, for another vocabulary and mindset, for another way of being, socially and economically? I'm for the latter option.
Instead of collectively cheating ourselves through the antagonistic nature of a market economy, perhaps we can collectively empower ourselves through a more tolerant and more diversified moral economy. As Daily and Cobb write in their book For The Common Good, "The transition that is needed cuts against patterns of thought and expectation that have been cultivated for generations. It must appeal to long-term interests in unaccustomed ways. The long term includes the life times of children and grandchildren, and it must assume a deep concern for them. In fact, it goes beyond that. A sustained willingness to change depends on a love of the earth that human beings once felt strongly, but that has been thinned and demeaned as land was commodified."
An Organic Option:
How do we begin cutting across patterns of thought and expectation? There are cues to how we might reorder our social and economic lives right under our feet. They can be found, I believe, in more ecological approaches to agriculture and food production. Organic food and farming offers especially fertile ground. But, we need to be careful here. We have the tendency (as producers and non-producers) to stress the techniques, technologies and end products of our trade and in the process to ignore the fact that agriculture is as intimately bound up in social relationships as it is in ecological ones. This oversight, of course, is not unique to us. It is characteristic of the industry as a whole. Much scientific testing, extension training, and public policy has gone into convincing us that farming is only a business and not a way of life. An equally familiar corollary is that food is only a commodity. If, based on this orientation, we concentrate solely (or even predominantly) on the presence or absence of synthetic inputs and residues and ignore the fact that such practices can significantly reduce our dependence on external resources as well as on agribusiness and governmental control, then we miss a major dimension (and potential) of the organic enterprise. We will also miss the appeal organic production may hold for survivalists and terrorists.
This does not mean that organic practices spawn, or can be reduced to, terrorist tendencies - nothing could be further from my point. Let there be no mistake about it. Rather, it means that the great opportunities available through organic farming and food production will be sacrificed, or seriously compromised, if we approach them with a conventional mindset, if we fail to attend to the social dimensions and implications of this enterprise. Elizabeth Henderson, organic farmer, sustainable agriculture and peace advocate puts it in a more positive light when she writes, "Organic farming can never be agri-business as usual The foundation of our growing system is stewardship of the land, long-term relationships with soil organisms, animals and our fellow human beings."
So, what is the nature of the relationships that attach to a fuller understanding of organic? There can be no prescriptions, just guidelines. We can be guided, however, by what we have learned from ecology and by the fact that we are striving to build a more regenerative or sustainable agro-eco system, a system with the flexibility (in terms of energy and natural resources) to adapt to basic human needs and changing environmental conditions.
In this regard, ecological study has impressed upon us a number of critical concepts. Among them is the importance of biological diversity for enabling stability and the long-term survival of the system. Here, it is important to recognize that diversity does not reside in a single 'preferred' place, but exists in many different places simultaneously and in the opportunities these places provide within themselves and between themselves for new combinations and patterns to arise.
Furthermore, diversity is maintained at the margins, in the woodlots and along the edges of fields, not within well-regulated and simplified centers. These out-of-the-way places (and those who live there) are the keepers of our vitality and resilience. As Vandana Shiva puts it, "even the smallest of us has a place and purpose in a sustainable system." But, to recognize this requires us to think in nonlinear ways, to replace reductionist cause-effect relationships with complex, overlapping, frequently redundant, 'job-sharing' relationships. We need to more fully appreciate a system in which, to paraphrase Bill Mollison, 'each component has many functions and every function is performed by many components.' It is an argument for a polycultural vs a moncultural mindset. It is also an argument for greater decentralization and for smaller scale.
It is true, of course, that decentralization can have repressive and isolationist tendencies. Small communities can be closed communities and, as such, have reputations, not wholly undeserved, of being intolerant and stifling places to live. History tells us, as does Arthur Miller in The Crucible, that a small group seeking freedoms for itself is perfectly capable of denying basic rights to others. This, however, is not the basis for an organically-grounded sustainable society. Such a society reaffirms human rights and communities, but within the context of ecological principles. Places, whether defined bioregionally or socioculturally, are not isolates. They have integrity and internal logic and are worthy of respect. They are also essential to the maintenance and reproduction of diversity, both biological and behavioral. But (and this 'but' is essential), they are interconnected. The existence of an organic bond between all living things and the resources that support life is yet another critical ecological concept.
We need to reaffirm our responsibility to our places and to all those who share them with us. We also need to reaffirm the relationship of our places to the regions and world beyond our immediate experience. In an ecological system we are not free to take for ourselves what belongs to everyone. We are not competing as individuals, but cooperating as communities and as species. Our survival depends on our awareness of our interconnectedness and on the fact that the waste water upstream becomes the drinking water downstream. That what we do today will influence how our children live (or don't live) tomorrow.
As I see it, this has several social implications. First, it means that we do not rape the system, taking everything that is not nailed down for our immediate use and gratification (and finding ourselves less satisfied by the hour). Rather we will learn to share, to redistribute resources, to want less, to consume less and to see ourselves merge with the 'other.'
Second, it means that a mentality of unlimited growth and external expansion is replaced by one of sufficiency and internal capacity building. We will make more of ourselves and not make more for ourselves. Our identity will be created more through shared meanings and interpersonal relationships and less through consumption and the possession of commodities.
Finally, we can not, in our connectedness, be anti-government. We must instead advocate a government that insures democratic participation and accountability to all, but especially to those who reside at the margins and who have had the smallest voices. Domination, oppression and control must give way to mutual responsibility and respect. Certainly, the greatest trust and responsibility needs to reside at the local level, in the small spaces where people are closest to their environment and to each other. Just as clearly, we need a governance system that will fight our tendency to be insular and parochial. Beyond the local and regional we need a federalism that guarantees minimum rights (that serve as floors, not ceilings) and living standards for all (the right to good food among them) and that legislates not for uniformity or administrative ease, but for the contexts that maintain and reproduce the diversity of expression and of ways of being that affirm a vital and enduring system.
As envisioned here, organic is not a set of farming practices. Neither is it food produced without synthetic chemicals. Rather, it is an integrated way of thinking and living. Organic in these terms shares little, if anything, with terrorism, fundamentalism, isolationism or intolerance.