‘Efficient’ Eden?

The cost of utilitarianism on the land.

It’s tempting to follow the utilitarian ideal – “designed to be useful or practical rather than attractive” – when thinking about the population of this world. We need, say some, to use every square inch of space to feed a rapidly increasing population.

Combine this concern with mechanization and extensive agriculture, and all sorts of things happen. The most intensive farmers in the world might well be the Chinese and Japanese peasant farming systems (see Farmers of Forty Centuries by F.H. King). In those systems multiple crops were grown on each plot each year (a long growing season helps) and a variety of animals, fish and poultry were raised on what we would consider minute farms – sometimes a couple acres or less. Outside inputs were negligible or non-existent. Composts and green manure were managed as essential. One has only to see farmers bringing weeds and leaves from the hills to their paddies and “squishing” them in between the rice plants to understand just how valuable natural inputs were to these farmers.

As noted in a previous column, machinery tends to make decisions for us: if we have the machine, we think we have to use it and the natural landscape will just have to change. Whether massive land-clearing, such as what’s done in the forests of B.C. and Canada’s parklands, is actually profitable in terms of energy, capital and human values is not clear.

Is bigger better?

Gardeners are not immune to these trends. I remember when I thought I would save about $1,500 per year by growing vegetables. That was when I used a spade, rake and hoe. Now I have a beautiful rototiller – my second one – that cost more than $1,000. And I find myself tempted to increase my garden space even though we produce enough for ourselves with plenty left to give away. Must I grow as much as I can possibly grow? Should I increase the size of my garden? Should I emulate the Chinese farmers mentioned above? (China is now moving towards extensive farming which increases capital costs, decreases rural population and employment, and almost never can outproduce intensive farming on a cost-per-acre basis.)

According to some researchers, “small farms – with about 25 acres or less – along with family-run operations . . . produce over 70 percent of the world’s food.” Let’s not glorify the back-breaking work of using hand tools over machinery, but recognize that when we in North America and Europe get bigger and bigger in terms of our farm sizes and capital investments, we are not necessarily being the most efficient in producing food.

We have seen the results of utilitarianism in this area, in the Midwest, in the prairies. Zillions of those little “bowls” in our fields have been filled in; “swamp busting” is prevalent wherever legal (and sometimes where it is not); hedgerows are eliminated, even some windbreaks are removed. Hillocks are levelled, small patches of forests cleared, and creek banks grazed. One wonders about the costs of running an excavator or bulldozer and the bale or two that is gained. As one local person commented, “Oh, all that machine work will pay for itself – in about twenty years.”

In his poem Binsey Poplars, felled 1879, G.M. Hopkins says, “O if we but knew what we do / When we delve or hew – / Hack and rack the growing green!”
Are there limits to what we can do to remodel the land? Will our activities eventually bite us in lower water tables, in minor weather pattern changes? What is truly useful? It’s a question we need to answer. It goes well with Wendell Berry’s question, “How much is too much?”

Binsey Poplars

felled 1879

My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
…..Of a fresh and following folded rank
……………..Not spared, not one
……………..That dandled a sandalled
……….Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.

..O if we but knew what we do
………When we delve or hew —
…..Hack and rack the growing green!
……….Since country is so tender
…..To touch, her being só slender,
…..That, like this sleek and seeing ball
…..But a prick will make no eye at all,
…..Where we, even where we mean
…………….To mend her we end her,
…………When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
…..Strokes of havoc unselve
……….The sweet especial scene,
…..Rural scene, a rural scene,
….Sweet especial rural scene.

Gerard Manley Hopkins


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