Thursday, April 21, 2011

Human Monoculture and Economic Diversity

The permaculture movement has made significant strides in raising awareness about the hazards of monocropping agriculture, in which a single organism, such as corn, is the predominant inhabitant of the agricultural landscape.  Diverse, interdependent plant and animal communities modeled on the natural world, it is argued, offer significant advantages in the long run in terms of soil fertility, watershed management, pest control, and other parameters of environmental preservation. But the beautiful thing about permaculture, as Toby Hemenway explains in his book Gaia’s Garden, is that it is a way of thinking and not a set of practices. Because of this, we can apply the same basic principles to human culture conditions as to plant culture conditions.  The Green Helping Hand Reskilling Initiative and other community organizing strategies responding to Peak Oil can help to break down the tendency toward human monocultures by creating new relationships and new flows of material and information.

“Cultural diversity” is a term that has been in common use for years.  Most often, what it seems to mean is celebrating differences in language, cuisine, the history of peoples and nations, and so on.  It’s worth noting, of course, that the discourse of diversity occurs within the dominant culture.  Because of this, I have often wondered how significant the term cultural diversity really is.  I feel that deep cultural diversity relies to at least some degree on a diversity of economic systems to support these cultures, and that economic hegemony runs counter to such diversity.  For example, today people who wish to honor “Native American culture” may study with a Native American teacher, learn Native American survival skills or crafts, or participate in spiritual practices derived from Native American traditions.  Some elements of these cultures have been preserved.  However, I would argue that, taken outside their larger cultural context, a shaman’s drum or a sweatlodge ceremony is a bit like a tiger in a zoo: alive and cared for, perhaps, but a different thing in some important respects than it would be in its native habitat.

Around the world, the extinction of languages and destruction of human cultures continues at a rapid pace.  And while we often point to war, genocide, relocation, and environmental degradation as the causes, it’s important to note that these are merely some of the tools used to extend particular economic systems.  In the dominant system, land is an item of commerce, living within a political boundary requires payment of taxes, and these taxes must be paid in the coin of the realm, earned in that same system.  In the end, the expanding hegemony of dominant economic interests puts increasing pressure on human cultural diversity to stay within a fairly narrow range, and the mechanisms are much the same as those responsible for cornfields now extending from horizon to the horizon in the US Midwest.  Without its own economy – in other words, without a way of meeting basic needs that operates in ways consistent with the other elements of the culture – a really different culture could starve, sometimes literally.

I used to take evening walks in Royal Oak, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit where I lived in a neighborhood of homes mostly built in the 1920’s.  From nearly every front window I could see the flickering blue light of a television in the living room.  The economics of the neighborhood rested on wage-earning employment, which we take for granted.  Why there was such an apparent lack of diversity in the use of free time outside of the workplace remains a worthy question, however.  Whatever the cause, the pattern was clear, and the chemically fed front lawns and ubiquitous yew and arborvitae foundation plantings reflected also a kind of human monoculture, with all its inherent systemic risks. 

This led me to some questions: What to do about it?  How to re-introduce cultural diversity in the face of a homogenizing economic juggernaut?  Where is the chink in the armor of the dominant economic paradigm?

The answer started to appear to me in 2008 when a large economic shock went through the dominant economy, further concentrating the system’s wealth in the hands of a few while leaving many others without jobs.  What happens when a large number of two-income families become one-income families?  Is it a coincidence that sales of seeds to home gardeners reportedly went up 25% in the spring of the following year?

It seems sensible to me that there could be a correlation there.  It’s not hard to imagine the thinking behind the aggregate purchasing decisions that shifted the seed market so dramatically as the economy went into recession.  In addition to the visceral response of planting food crops as insurance against hunger, many households suddenly had the hands and time available to do the work.  Further, the economics of home gardening started to make sense in a way that it might not have when the wages from an hour’s work or three could fill a grocery bag with the fruits of agricultural labor performed elsewhere.

On a fundamental level, the kernel of the change was this: many households that previously had more money than time (thus putting a premium on industrial convenience products) had become households with proportionately less money and proportionately more time.  As this shift occurred, activities like home gardening and clothing repair or alternation that didn’t previously seem worthwhile suddenly did.  Likewise, though I have no studies to prove these activities grew in popularity, we can point to work such as baking one’s own bread, engaging in home food preservation, rearing one’s own children, raising backyard poultry, creating one’s own meals and entertainment, and so on.  All of these amount to direct wealth creation, and they circumvent to various degrees the industrial model.

So, is this a real shift toward cultural diversity, or is the home gardener, for example, the economic equivalent of a tiger in a zoo, still beholden to the dictates of the dominant economic system, which – let’s be clear about this – in most cases largely supplies the gardener’s daily calories, and which may remove that gardener from the land if the rent, mortgage or taxes are not paid?  

My sense is, it’s a bit of both.  For starters, there are units of local currency moving in and out of pretty much every household, and wherever this is so, the dominant economic paradigm still holds sway. 

But it also seems likely that what Ivan Illich calls “useful unemployment” can open the doors to real cultural shifts as people use their time to creatively provide for some of their needs and connect with others in ways for which they previously had neither the time nor the motivation.  It also seems likely that creating new material flows and engaging in value creation for one’s own household could serve as an incubator for nascent industry.  In this way, emerging textile makers, tinkerers, gardeners, or masters of food fermentation could re-enter the official, currency-tagged economic flows of wealth creation by starting their own businesses as they learn new skills and apply existing skills in new ways. 

Personally, I applaud these outcomes, and I see richer possibilities for creative and adaptable subcultures emerging as we move away from the economic monoculture in which it is not uncommon for household members to park two cars in the garage after a day’s work only to stare at lighted boxes until bedtime.  From my perspective, the cumulative impact of even small shifts at the margins of the economic system could be more important in developing and maintaining a diversity of viable cultures than any number of international potlucks, however tasty the vegetable samosas and pierogis being served might be. 

Finally, heaven help me, but there’s just something wonderful about the idea of people in capitalist societies – especially the unemployed – putting their backyards, garages, kitchens, basements and unused bedrooms to work as productive capital.  The possibility that goods of better quality and greater uniqueness, healthier foods, and more rewarding relationships could also result is simply icing on the homemade cake.


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