Changing My Mind
You may be wondering the point of Walking With Wendell.
I’ve wondered about that myself. Certainly by now there’s no hiding the ruts in my thinking and writing style. My readership (of which I comprise about one-third), wants to know – “…….aaand?” Sure, Wendell Berry is cool. He also refuses to use a computer. Who does that? Oh, and he’s a farmer. Who does that?
So what exactly am I trying to accomplish here?
It’s a fair question and it prompted me to reread Counterweight -- my second ever post in November 2016, back when the ground was still shaking from the election. That blog was prescient. I knew I would need it. It was a letter to my future self, explaining matter-of-factly what this blog was about. It was to be my small scaffold for public-facing activism in my theretofore intensely private life. More so, however, it was to be an expedition of self-discovery. I wanted to out myself as a Wendell Berry acolyte and I wanted to finally stand up for his ideas.
Here’s what I wrote a year ago (and this is a first – quoting myself, which reminds me of the Bruno Kirby line in When Harry Met Sally where he says to Carrie Fisher, “No one has ever quoted me…to ME before!” And if the past 12 months didn’t do enough to age me, I just realized that neither of those actors is with us any longer...).
By writing post after post, regardless of readership, I will be out walking with Wendell. More than readers, and more than being understood even, what I want is to understand - truly and deeply - how to live in grace, in place and with hope. I have always wanted this, to be sure. But it seems like winter is coming, and I worry that times are soon going to test our 'grace and hope' reserves. Let this blog be my place to learn and nothing more.
I like that mission statement very much. In full disclosure, though, I also wrote that no matter how tempting, I wouldn’t avert my eyes from the national political disaster that was unfolding. On that count I’ve failed. This was the week that I finally said “enough.” I’m taking an open-ended break from the news. And even prior to this voluntary renunciation, you might recall I recently dropped the premise that I need blog about the new administration at all.
The point of Walking With Wendell is not to comment on the absurdity of America’s political leadership. Others do that really well. Neither is it a “How To” blog for making a better community/society/economy. There’s no shortage of that (including from Mr. Berry) and I find “What You Can Do to Help the Suffering Planet” suggestions tedious. The last thing anyone needs is another list.
Paradoxically though, change is exactly what I hope happens from writing WWW. But to be precise – it’s not the world I want to change. Not exactly. The point of the blog is to change my mind. And yours too.
You see, I believe that if our minds worked more like Mr. Berry’s – if our senses were as keen, our sensibilities as developed, our intelligences as well cultivated and our ethics as sturdy – we would be on the road to redemption. I’m all too aware that my own mind stops where beams should lengthen, and that its gaps abandon me to small and discontinuous patches of knowledge. My wisdom is circumscribed by my experience; my character by my habits.
And so I hope that my mind might still be shaped by the power and presence of another’s -- one that is more attuned to the given world, and to the way we might experience it. I seek only to be taught. It’s really that simple. Though we put our children in the presence of teachers for just such imprinting, we dismiss the idea that adults be so impressionable. But there is nothing childish about learning how to love more completely, or to think and speak more unambiguously about our relationships in this singular world. In point of fact, the challenge to do so is uniquely adult. For it isn’t our relationship TO the world that we need to learn about. That implies something disconnected and inhuman. Neither is it simply our relationships within the world, which ignores our indivisibility with all that is God-given and naturally occurring. Our job is to get all of it -- the “whole horse” as Berry and his agrarian predecessors might say.
As I've written before, we are here as both guest and host. We aren't going to engineer our way out of this mess. We aren't going to pray our way out either. Getting it right means putting ourselves in proper relation to the non-human world, and to other people. Our work must support our life here, but the sanctity of life here must also guide our work.
To ground the point, let’s take the future of food. Conveniently, my recent discovery about cellular agriculture coincided with the next piece in It All Turns on Affection – a short talk Wendell included called The Future of Agriculture. Here we have an easy case study to test what’s in our minds, whether we need to change them, and how much we have to learn.
Let’s begin with Wendell Berry’s vision. The future of agriculture, he said to the conferees at Georgetown University in 2011 at a Future of Food gathering, is not distinguishable from the future of land, which itself is indistinguishable from the future of human care. The health of the ecosphere is all that matters. Consequently, we need to learn how to adapt to local conditions – the ecosphere being quite different everywhere around the world. This will require everyone’s intelligence, meaning the work is inherently democratic.
That’s "Berryism 101" and none of it should surprise you. But the question is (before you read any further): Do you agree? Is he right? Or do you feel like he’s missing something?
Let’s get a different take on the same subject. The Good Food Institute, a nonprofit out of Washington DC, is the technical resource and advocacy group for the pioneering companies developing “clean” meat and plant-based meat alternatives. The Institute is working to transform the world away from factory farming toward biotechnologically cultured meat that would improve the environment, food security, global health, and animal welfare. It’s aligned with companies like Memphis Meats and Modern Meadow, which are growing beef and leather respectively, not from cows but from cell cultures – doing away with the animal, the pen, the feedstock and the antibiotic drugs necessary to support the animal’s life.
There is excitement aplenty about this biotechnology. Over a hundred million dollars of venture capital has rushed in, some of it from celebrity investors like Sergey Brin and Bill Gates. Food “disrupters” even have their own venture fund now, New Crop Capital. The space is filled with earnest Ivy Leaguers attracted by a lengthy list of “better living through technology” claims: humane treatment of animals; dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emissions; the promise of DNA-altered meat designed for human health and chronic disease prevention.
It’s early and the rewards are still speculative. It cost $330,000 to make the first lab-grown beef patty a few years ago (which tasted pretty good, if we’re to believe the reports). But the problems these investors and innovators are addressing are indisputable. Factory farming is categorically barbaric. Livestock production causes more greenhouse gas emissions than do all the worlds’ cars, trucks, planes and boats combined. 30 percent of the surface of the planet and 33 percent of our farmland goes to supporting livestock. It takes 450 gallons of water to make a quarter pounder. I mean, if ever a system needed disrupting, look no farther than the food industry.
I’ve spent some time listening to the clean meat (and clean milk, and clean chicken) geniuses. What electrical engineering did in the 20th century, they say, bioengineering will do in the 21st. Biology is the greatest technology of all, they attest, and we are SO CLOSE to harnessing it for human betterment. Just as the Model T swept away the horse and buggy and the loads of manure that no one could figure out what do with, cellular ag will one day make us wonder why we ever raised and slaughtered animals just to consume their musculature.
This is not Berryism, obviously.
I will tell you that the split occurs where it always occurs, right at the first premise. In Berry, we humans are always users of the land and therefore its care comes first. In the Good Food movement, we needn’t use the land at all. Our care for it, therefore, is enacted by our leaving it alone.
Would I reject a massively successful cellular agriculture revolution that delivered on its promise to create a healthy world population and a healthier planet? Hell no I wouldn’t. But in the pursuit of this strategy, at the expense of some others, we must recognize a set of questions that have to be asked. And if possible, of necessity, we should chalk out working answers, even the fumbling kind – because we humans are so limited in comprehending causes and effects.
THIS then is the WB test: Are we capable of formulating the right questions? Are we brave enough to challenge to the scientists? Can an argument be won when the technical expertise is on the other side? Do we have an alternative epistemology to the scientific method, one that might be even more compelling?
Do you see the difficulty? This is what I mean by “changing our minds.” When Bruce Friedrich, Managing Trustee of New Crop Capital and Co-founder and Executive Director of the Good Food Institute approaches you at a party and tells you that we finally have the technology to build a food system that aligns with our highest ideals, and that markets and biotech are seamlessly transitioning the world away from factory farming, will you know what to say? Because there are Bruce Friedrich’s all over the place and they are running the world. And they are holding all the cards.
I don't know what to say to such people. But here, with Wendell on my mind, is an attempt to reply.
“Mr. Friedrich, when it comes to food, every ‘advance’ in technology has moved us and our planet away from health, not toward it. I’m thinking of fertilizers, pesticides, enormous earth-pulverizing equipment and related soil and species loss, over-fishing, genetically modified organisms, corporate control of seed stocks, debt-financed agri-business, monosodium glutamate and the flavorizing industry that addicts us to chemical compounds. How does technologizing meat production solve a set of problems that technology introduced into the food system in the first place?”
“Mr Friedrich, the growing of food used to be integral to a community’s self-reliance and self-knowledge. True, this has not been the case in this country for several decades, but our industrialized solutions don't point in the right direction. In fact the local food movement is finally starting to serve producers and consumers across the US. Won’t a successful cellular agriculture system further indenture people to distant, faceless companies that control so much of their food supply already?”
“Mr. Friedrich, you seem to believe that eliminating the livestock industry will return native fields and forests to rural America, and I agree there must be better uses for all that pasture land and the miles and miles of corn and soy fields used to raise those animals. But clearly we are still going to need to use some land to support our lives. Don’t your cellular ag companies only serve to enlarge our ignorance about how to take care of land, rather than help us with the important job of learning and sharing the art and science of land stewardship?”
“Mr. Friedrich, what chemicals and what energy do you need to grow meat in petri dishes? When we become reliant on these and a whole host of other conditions, how resilient will we be when your supply lines are disrupted? Especially after we’ve lost all our knowledge about raising animals for meat?”
“Finally, Mr. Friedrich, please help me understand scale. You claim that this technology has the potential to feed the world. We’re feeding the world now, kind of, with other industrial processes and they are ruining the planet. What makes you think that any industrial process at enormous scale is preferential to small, locally adapted solutions? Just because we don’t have those now doesn’t mean that we should replace one global system for another.”
These questions don’t feel quite right to me. I still feel like I’m trying on my father’s suit. But they’re the best I can do and I'm proud of even a feeble attempt. I need to keep Walking and writing. I hope you’ll keep reading. This work is formidable and our minds are not easily changed. I think changing a steak is easy by comparison.