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The Farming Revolution and The New Spirituality
The Contemplative Column by Theodore Richards
Just as we are all nature, we are all, essentially, farmers. Very few of us would survive for very long without farms. Our lives and, indeed, civilization itself, are completely dependent upon the existence of farms. But one of the deep paradoxes of Modernity is that, at the same time, none of us is a farmer, either—or at least very few of us. We are completely alienated from the one process that we all depend on more than any other, the growing of food.
Because it is so integral to human culture, we cannot entirely separate our consciousness from farming. For example, methods we use in farming today influence and are influenced by our culture. Specifically, I would suggest that one cannot have a factory farm system without also having a factory school system. They co-create one another; they co-arise. In the past, as we shall see, the way that human beings farmed and fed themselves was integrated inextricably with human culture and spirituality.
What cannot be avoided, however, is the apocalyptic nature of industrial agriculture. It has, for all its productivity, led us to the very edge of planetary capacity—to such a degree that a crash seems imminent. There is no way forward without a radical change in farming methods, which cannot happen without a re-imagined spirituality.
I lived, once, on a Zimbabwean dairy farm. I heard the lowing cows each morning as they were milked, listened to their cries as they were weaned. My work was beyond the farm, in a rural area that was entirely made up of subsistence farms. Each day, I would walk to our lessons through the parched countryside, through the dry and overworked and depleted soils, cracking under our feet. These were the lands where the poor Zimbabweans were forced to live and sustain themselves, while the white farmers had come to claim the good lands for their commercial farms.
Zimbabwe was in a state of upheaval when I arrived. The currency had collapsed. In the years that followed, groups of armed men would begin to take over the wealthy white farms. This happened with the ruling government’s full support; but it was not because those in power were interested in justice for the rural poor. It happened because Zimbabwe was on the edge. The rural areas were overcrowded; the soils dry and pushed to their limit; deforestation, in a land in which wood was the primary fuel, was rampant. Urban shantytowns were overflowing with migrants.
While in Zimbabwe, as in any other example, there were many factors—the global economy, the legacy of colonialism, the injustice of land distribution, the incompetence and brutality of the Mugabe regime—when a people loses the ability to sustain itself on the land, unraveling follows. In Syria, it has seldom been mentioned that its civil war, among the most brutal in recent memory, is partly rooted in a drought linked to climate change.
Communities unravel and cultures disintegrate when the land no longer produces food. There is no faster road to apocalypse. We like to think that we are different, those of us who live in wealthy, peaceful places, for whom wars are fought thousands of miles away with drones. We do not get involved in the messy, dirty, bloody business of war in the way that that we hear about on the television—genocides and ethnic cleansing, mass rape and mass execution. But the truth is that we are only a few failed crops away from such brutality. The truth is that we fool our selves into thinking we are any different from the people who commit atrocities. Of course, many would not—just as many resisted the Nazis and the interahamwe—but many, too many, would descend into madness when they fear they cannot feed their children.
In the coming years, water will be central in many of our wars. Climate change and the depletion of soils due to industrial agriculture will lead to crisis after crisis, conflict after conflict. There will be two options: the shock doctrine of crisis capitalism—using crisis to benefit the few at the expense of the poor masses, which is essentially a more extreme application of the current worldview—or the great re-imagining. A new way of farming and of life.
Agriculture evolved in the context of human ecological relationships. The primordial human culture was one of embeddedness in nature and interrelatedness. The corresponding spirituality was one of enchantment. The cosmos—defined by the ecological community—was alive and sacred. Human identity was inextricable from this web. The relationship between human and our sources of food was a sacred one—and in a world in which none of the false guarantees of the supermarket exist, there would have been nothing more central or important than this relationship. In time, slowly, the relationship between human settlement and food would have given rise to evolutionary changes: animals that once were followed or chased by humans began to live among them; the seeds that grow from human waste were now planted intentionally. All this is evolution; it is relationship. There is no absolute dualism as in industrial farming.
An increasingly settled relationship and a more intentional relationship between humans and food gave rise to an evolution in spirituality. The farmer began to see the world in terms of the balance between mother and father gods, the earth’s fertility being paramount. At the same time, the pastoralist, still a nomad, developed a more patriarchal form of spirituality. God, already gendered, became exclusively male. These two forms of spirituality remained embedded in the axial religions that would later become our primary world religions. The monotheists would look to the sky for their father god; the Taoists, for example, would add layers of philosophical complexity and interiorization to the dialectic of mother and father gods. In Hinduism these elements were integrated—the Aryans bringing with them their father god in the Vedas, but the indigenous Great Mother remaining part of the complex and pluralistic world that gave rise, in the axial age, to Vedanta.
The axial religions arose in the context of Empire—complex, hierarchical, pluralistic, and militarized civilizations. The old gods were first coopted for the purposes of empire: the sacred mountain or tree was moved to the temple of the emperor. It must be understood that such a civilization could only exist with large-scale agriculture, which allows for a military class and other elites. And the structure of such civilizations dictates the structure of consciousness.
Farming remained, however, central to human culture for millennia. Those who were able to remove themselves from the process of food production had always, even after the agricultural revolution and the advent of imperial societies, been the minority. Most people were farmers, and pre-Modern religion, even the more dualistic and patriarchal versions, remained rooted in agricultural metaphors and symbolism.
This began to change, however, as the Modern era ushered in a separation of science—the physical world and Nature—from religion—the internal, immaterial, psychic world. The Protestant Reformation represented the first completely Modern religious movement, in that religion became a personal, interior endeavor, rather than a cosmic and communal one. A rejection of matter and of the physical body was part and parcel of this movement. People were still farmers, but farming was not, for the Protestant, a labor of love. It was an act of conquest. Colonialism expanded rapidly as it was now seen as God’s work, taming the wild and the wilderness—making it holy by making it more human, more sterile, more cultivated.
The patterns of alienation from the land begun through Capitalism, colonialism, and Protestantism were completed with industrial revolution. This impacted the culture and consciousness of farming in two ways. First, it brought people increasingly into cities in which they sold their labor to work in factories rather than grow their food. Second, it brought about an industrialization of the farm itself. Industrial capitalism, applied to the farm, has alienated farmer and eco-system, and the effects have been devastating. No longer a means for fostering relationship, the farm has become, like industrial civilization as a whole, a destructive force on the planet. Chemical fertilizer that had been developed during the world wars for weaponry has been applied in such a way that soils are depleted and pollution from farming is nearly as bad as from factories. And while initially leading to a huge increase in outputs—the so-called “green revolution”—factory farms are putting our ability to feed our selves increasingly at risk as soils are depleted and water sources are toxified. The farm, once a place where humans danced at the edge of civilization and the wild, a controlled but diverse ecology, has become sterile. It now limits genetic and biological diversity rather than preserving it as it once did. A trip to farm country in the United States is to encounter mile after mile of corn and soy, corn and soy, as far as the eye can see. The reasons for this have nothing to do with efficiency, as agribusiness would claim. Animals contained in filthy, disease-ridden spaces, with no room to roam, with diets largely derived from the heavily-subsidized grains of monoculture—you guessed it, soy and corn.
Our entire food production and consumption process has become mechanized, toxified, and perhaps most significantly, desacralized. Indigenous peoples have always understood the sacred act of growing food and sharing a meal. In the rituals of the world’s religions, sharing a meal is a recurrent theme. In Christianity, the Communion celebration is a core ritual—but how sacred is the body of Christ when the bread is grown without the loving care of the farmer?
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There is, however, another kind of revolution happening on the planet today, akin to the great upheavals of the agricultural and industrial revolutions. It is largely unnamed and, because so few of us are in any way involved in farming or food production, largely unnoticed. It is a movement that involves a variety of organic and holistic farming practices, including the permaculture and bio-dynamic farming movements. Collectively, I will refer to the as Agro-Ecology, because I believe that the key philosophical shift that must occur is to see farming as an integral part of ecology rather than an industrial process.
Understanding the relational evolutionary nature of ecology is essential in order to create sustainable farming practices. We have based our current farming on the industrial worldview. That worldview—and, indeed, the world it feeds—is falling apart. Soils are depleted; pollution from farms is worse than most cities. Soon, the massive production made possible by fossil fuels will crash. A deep ecological sensibility requires that the human not only understand ecology as it relates to other organisms, but also recognize—and not just recognize, but actually feel—that the human is another organism in this web.
Just as the farm itself can only be understood as an interconnected whole through space—no separation between humans, beans and corn, animals—the process of food production is a single thread—a sutra, to borrow a term from the East—connected temporally from seed to table. When we grow our food and process our food and prepare our food, we become healthier spiritually and physically. “There is, then, a politics of food that, like any politics, involves our freedom,” writes Wendell Berry. “We still (sometimes) remember that we cannot be free if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else. But we have neglected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else… One reason to eat responsibly is to live free.” Eating is political and spiritual. All the information about new diets and healthy lifestyles seem to go hand and hand with an increasingly unhealthy population. We know more about health and diet, but eat less healthy. The so-called “first world diseases” of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer ravish the United States, the home of “health food”. The problem lies not with our nutritional knowledge but in the decoupling of food and culture, and culture is rooted in ecology. We shouldn’t think about what we eat; we should work the land, grow healthy food and share it.
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The Agro-ecology revolution will change human consciousness just as the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution did. It will re-introduce us to the sacredness of nature and the wild. Moreover, human communities—Earth communities—will emerge as part of ecological community. Indeed, the notion of spirituality as an individual pursuit rather than a communal one is undermined by the recognition that the food we eat is community, too.These are apocalyptic changes. Today’s worldview is completely shaped by the factory farm and it alienations.
These are apocalyptic changes. Today’s worldview is completely shaped by the factory farm and it alienations. Its loneliness. Its brutality. We consume it every day. It is in our bodies. Indeed, it is in our souls.
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Theodore Richards is an educator, writer, and philosopher. He is the founder of The Chicago Wisdom Project (now Wisdom Projects, Inc.) and editor of the online magazine and podcast ReImagining. His work is dedicated to re-imagining education and creating new narratives about our place in the world. He has received degrees from various institutions, including the University of Chicago and The California Institute of Integral Studies, but has learned just as much studying the martial art of Bagua; teaching in various settings and students; and as a traveler from the Far East to the Middle East, from southern Africa to the South Pacific. He is the author of eight books and numerous literary awards, including two Nautilus Book Awards and three Independent Publisher Awards. His latest book, Reimagining the Classroom, is now available. He lives on the south side of Chicago with his wife and three daughters.