By John McHugh (Clondarrig Farm, Co. Laois)
There is a strong sense these days that we are living in exciting times, a time where great change is required of us so that humanity can prosper into the distant future.
Change is often an uncomfortable process, one where we have to let go of what we know and what feels safe, to make room for something new and unknown. “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t” is a familiar saying in Ireland and this fear of change leads to resistance. “The only constant in life is change” is also a familiar saying, one that suggests resistance is futile, that we should embrace change and the flow of life, using our energies more wisely guiding our course to avoid the many obstacles that exist.
Agriculture seems to be at the epicentre of this change; beef crisis, dairy calf crisis, weather crisis, fodder crisis etc.
It seems like we have been existing in a constant state of crisis for the last number of years, like a boat without an oar, bundling down an increasingly rough river, living in hope that calm waters lie ahead, but in fear that one or two more collisions will sink our boat.
The increasing talk of environmental degradation on practically all fronts and the seemingly impossible levels of change required to counter this seems to present an almost unavoidable obstacle that threatens to strike the fatal blow to our leaky boat.
But do we have choices other than denial or despair?
Maybe we can pick up the oars we left down so long ago, the oars we had forgotten but still have, taking back control of our boats and finding that the current rapids of change can actually be exhilarating!
The irony of how agriculture has been hailed as a major Irish success story with large increases in value and volumes of exports since the 2007 is beginning to raise uncomfortable questions for many farmers who don’t seem to be sharing in this success. A greater irony exists in that those who proclaim this success story are charting our course for the years ahead with plans for much greater growth powered by “sustainable intensification”, and balanced by afforestation of marginal land. Sustainable intensification will involve the adoption of more technology combined with increases in efficiency. This equates to more investment, more costs and greater output and scale and in turn this equates to fewer farmers. This is the treadmill of capitalism! To maintain this growth there must be sacrifice!
There can be no denying that humanity has witnessed extraordinary growth since the birth of capitalism in the sixteenth century.
To facilitate this growth required the creation of the commodity.
A commodity is essentially something that can be traded and used to generate profit. The four primary resources of Land, Labour, Capital and Enterprise were all now commodities used to fuel this new system.
“The Commons” or lands which no one owned were now private property and the “great enclosure” of land into fields was the choice method in the UK and Ireland to define and enforce this new idea of land ownership. The function of this land was now to generate profit.
People became labour units whose function was also to generate profit.
The function of money changed.
Money had, up to this been used as a means to simplify the trading of items. Now its function too was profit, and it was used to trade the other commodities required to make that profit.
Finally enterprise or human creativity and inventiveness was also tasked with making profit. Creativity and inventiveness that were not used for the purpose of profit would attract little of the other primary resources. Likewise with land, labour and capital.
The purpose of human life in this system is to generate profit and our progress is defined as growth.
Competition was used as the vehicle to drive this growth, The limited resources or commodities now meant there was not enough for everyone who were all trying to “grow” and hence competition proved a very powerful vehicle to ensure that commodities were predominantly used for their primary function of making profit.
Driving this new powerful vehicle saw the encouragement of human ambition. Ambition is often defined as greed, but perhaps being greedy within this context is simply being an ambitious and effective capitalist.
However, greed does not come easy to most people, leading them to frequently make choices that are not to their benefit within this system. This is where the corporate structure comes in.
Corporations are entities set up for the purpose of generating profit and are the perfect citizens of this new system, hence corporations are given legal personhood and favourable status within this system (reduced tax, limited liability etc).
The stage was now set for the remarkable “growth” that this system achieved over the last few hundred years. However in capitalism everything has a cost, and powering this growth required a lot of fuel.
This in turn led to the massive exploitation of primary resources.
Land was grabbed, forests were felled, rivers polluted. Labour was exploited through increasingly long working ours; even the parents of newborns are now required to quickly re-enter the labour market. Our capital or money was exploited too.
This continuous growth model needed a continuously expanding money system to facilitate it, which resulted in us all becoming increasingly held in bondage to this system, to the point that now most nation states are held in bondage and are increasingly indebted to this model.
The vast proportion of our creativity is now also being targeted with growth in profits and staying ahead of the competition. This results in our most creative minds often being tasked at creating weapons or agricultural implements that increase efficiency.
Increased efficiency you might say, is a positive thing, however efficiency within this new system took on a very different meaning. It was now about using resources effectively to maximize profit rather than completing tasks with the minimum amount of energy. Efficiency was now merely a method of becoming more competitive to increase the speed of growth and therefore the accumulation of profit.
This profit focused system skewed the vast majority of our technological developments, and this process compounded over time. Is it time to question the unquestionable, the system that gave us all of this success we perceive as “growth?”
It is said that exponential growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell! Is capitalism a cancer that is killing humanity? Do the problems we seem to be facing seem unavoidable and insurmountable because we are stuck in a box limiting our way of thinking, narrowing our focus so much that we can’t see all the solutions in the periphery?
The farmer who wants to jump off this treadmill and escape the increasing squeeze between costs and price received and the increasing requirement to go into debt for misguided technology in order to achieve distorted efficiency seems alone. They may feel left to carve an unknown path counter to everything they have known, everything their parents, grandparents and many more generations have known.
We can try to cut our costs, adopting organic and regenerative practices but the same pressures exist to produce more. We can try to achieve premium prices for our premium products and create links with affluent customers becoming increasingly health conscious and environmentally aware. But does this too ring hollow, in that we are creating a system whereby only the wealthy can afford healthy environmentally friendly food?
Those who seek change are no longer alone, being joined by increasing numbers, all intuitively seeking a pathway to a more equitable and positively orientated world, where future generations can still have a future.
By trading greed for compassion, competition for co-operation and exploitation for regeneration we can regain our future. We can regenerate our soils, our landscapes and diversity, we can regain our freedom from the slavery of commodified labour, we can re-task human ingenuity for the purpose of regeneration and human empowerment and we can re-purpose our money to facilitate the flow of energy towards these purposes.
This change will not come from the lobbying of politicians, nor through protests or revolution. This is human evolution and requires people looking for the solutions within themselves, solutions that will open the doors to the formation of communities that will hold power in ways unrecognized before, the power to chart our own course and create the world we want to live in.
The time for change is now. Pick up your oar.