Saturday, February 07, 2009

Excerpt from Fruitless Fall

An excerpt from Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis, by Rowan Jacobsen.
Webster has nothing against technology itself. He's aware that the scientific method has brought much progress. But he also sees that it isn't always the best approach. Controlled studies can handle only one or two variables at a time. So science breaks down a problem into the smallest units possible, then studies them one at a time to see what manipulating that one variable will do. It establishes tiny blocks of knowledge.

But when dealing with complex systems, with countless variables and feedback loops, science must throw up its hands. Look at the amount of attention paid to human nutrition, with rudimentary progress. Or our continuing inability to predict weather. Science's goal is to understand why something works so that it can manipulate and control that system. We have an obsession with knowing and controlling, and disdain more intuitive relationships with the world. But sometimes it isn't necessary to master a system in order to work harmoniously with it.

Webster, steeped in non-Western wisdom traditions, knew what his goal was: to establish an apiary that wasn't reliant on heroic human intervention and technology. If all the problems he and his beekeeping colleagues were having stemmed from human technology, then he was happy to let go of the reins and let the bees guide the development of their own apiary. He would be the caretaker, taking cues from the bees.

In his essays, he explained, "I tried to design a system where all the components of health (stability, resilience, diversity, and productivity) could function and grow —whether the mechanisms were known or unknown. Nature is much bigger than we are, and just allowing her methods to work could be the key to the future— both for the bees and for us." Later he added, "We'll never understand everything about Nature, but we can learn to live and work under her benevolent care and protection. Many have done this in the past, and there's no overriding reason why we can't do the same now and in the future. Working this way not only allows us to move away from the predatory and destructive economic and social system we live in now—it creates a real alternative. Making a living this way allows Nature to heal because of our work, rather than be continually degraded."

Of course, it also meant years of poverty. But what is poverty? "The state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions," according to Merriam-Webster's. It exists only in the context of an economic system. If you can't afford the same sneakers or minivans or steak as your neighbors and you feel humiliated or inferior or just plain sad as a result, then poverty can cause real mental and physical duress. But if your goal is "to have a nice life in the country, centered around farming, gardening, and especially—keeping bees" (that's Kirk Webster), then poverty starts to look an awful lot like a traditional, healthy existence.

The problem, as Webster might see it, is that farms have been co-opted into the modern economy, and farmers are forced to start acting and thinking like other businessmen. There's nothing wrong with a farmer having a good head for business, but farms— at least, environmentally conscious ones— can't be run like other businesses. Businesses are predicated on the assumption of endless growth. When starting a business, you write your five-year business plan, then borrow a big wad of money and hope that your growth stays ahead of your interest payments. It's a Ponzi scheme based on new waves of consumers funneling money into your business. And it depends on the assumption that you can always make more product. No matter how mature your company gets, you are expected to keep making more product. If Coca-Cola or Exxon has a flat year, shareholders savage the company.

But in the world of biological systems, nothing grows unstoppably except a cancer. A healthy farm is immersed in the cycles of nature: steady growth, steady decay, a well-maintained balance. To grow economically, it has to either eat up more land or produce more on the same land. Those have been the basic farming trends for half a century or more. But neither can go on indefinitely. Land is finite, and many technological innovations that have allowed farmers to wring more product from their land have come by sacrificing the long-term health of the soil. In other words, the innovations weren't really offering something for nothing. Like fossil fuel, they were taking a resource built up over millennia (fertility) and liquidating it in a one-time spree.

There are good reasons why we shouldn't measure farms with the same yardstick we use for other businesses, but how do we do that in a culture where the economy has become the default measure of value? Weekly grosses of movies are printed in more newspapers than movie reviews are. When any disaster befalls the country, from September 11 to Hurricane Katrina, we look to the Dow Jones to gauge the nation's trauma.

For many years beekeepers have felt the tension of trying to work within a growth-based economic system while shepherding animals who don't thrive under that pressure. Why are there so few young beekeepers? Children watched their parents struggle to make a living in an inflationary world and decided they wanted no part of that life. Beekeepers wanting to stay in business have followed "economies of scale" principles, borrowing lots of money, buying out other apiaries, getting larger and larger, and expanding their pollination coverage to stay afloat.

Kirk Webster had other ideas. He understood that all the trends in the industry—indeed, in the country—would only lead him and his bees to greater misery, so he decided to step off the train and follow a different path. He counseled his colleagues wanting to opt out of the industrial model to cultivate self-sufficiency.
Beekeepers must become experts at producing honey, pollen, queens or other bee products, and enjoying a simple, low-cost lifestyle in a rural place. By investing some of your time and money in the self-sufficiency aspects—raising your own queens, building your own equipment and buildings, welding, gardening,etc.—you become partially removed from the instability of the overall economic system. It takes really good management to make all these jobs fit together right, and some income is sacrificed in the boom years; but over the long run the apiary is more stable, resilient and enjoyable to work with.