Small: Good? Bad? Yes! Perhaps…

I just finished reading Bill McKibben‘s “Deep Economy.”  LA Times regards the book at “mind expanding.”  It definitely had some compelling stories about the viability of local agriculture, and some nasty ones about megafarms and the staggering grip that ADM and Monsanto have on US (and to some degree, world) agriculture.  Sadly, his argument is largely anecdotal.  Sad, because in the end, I can’t tell if the argument holds water (even though my romantic side hopes he’s right).  He dismisses some classes of argument (economics, etc) when convenient, and then use that logic when it suits him.  That works fine if you’re not the sort of person who cares about details, but it tends to weaken the argument even further.  So despite his readability, he’s probably not going to change a lot of minds.  Even if he’s talking about some legit ideas.

Meanwhile, at the recent TED conference, I watched Louise Fresco sorta make bread while she talked about the progress in agricultural production.   She use Wonder bread to make a point that it represented the industrialization of agriculture, but that this was not such a bad thing, because it represented such a huge increase in production.  The idea of returning en masse to that artisan’s loaf model would mean a dramatic reduction in agricultural productivity, and doom huge numbers of people to starvation.  Bad. Poor land productivity can also lead to deforestation in the developing world.  Also bad.

So, Bill is basically telling us that small would be a lot better.  Louise tells us that small is a romantic notion that we should let go of, since going there would actually be a disaster.  Who is right, and who is wrong?

Trick question, of course.  It’s possible that both are right.  Or even that both are wrong.  Because they are not talking about the same small.  At least, that’s my conclusion after looking closely.  Bill wants us to be smaller than the massive mechanized and low labor farms common in the US.  He talks about perhaps doubling the labor content of food relative to those massive farms.  His anecdotes talked about relatively small farms with smaller equipment.  It may cost more (he acknowledges that) but can actually produce more food per acre using fewer chemicals.  This seems credible to me.  And although he often uses the term “locally grown”, he will also talk about regional food supplies, and talks about preference, not mandate.

Louise, on the other hand, was telling us that those hand-tilled farms of the good old days will not produce enough food to feed the planet.  And, having seen the village farming in Sierra Leone in January, I think she’s probably right also.  Louise also pooh-poohed the idea of locally grown food, arguing that regional would make much more sense.

I believe there is some midpoint that both could support.  Smaller than megafarm, but not as small as village farms.  Increase the labor content relative to highly mechanized US farms.  Increase the productivity, probably through modest mechanization, of the farmers and the land in developing nations.   Senegal, for example, is more mechanized and more productive than Sierra Leone.  Europe is somewhat less accepting of megafarms than the US (and, in the spirit of anecdotes, here is one) , but they have much higher land productivity than the developing world.  So, Bill is nudging us more toward the European model.  Louise would seem to be hopeful that Sierra Leone, and even Senegal, could move toward European productivity. In short, both want “sustainable”, even “thrivable” as the end goal for humans and, necessarily, the planet.

I don’t know whether Bill and Louise are pals, or if they met, whether they could find a number of points on which to agree.  I hope so, because I believe they’re both intelligent, and they both want as many humans as possible to have high quality lives.  (It’d be great if they could find ways to work together.  His populist appeal combined with her positional and academic credibility would be a formidable combo.)

I would prefer that their messages, like many messages, not be expressed in such ways that they are readily captured in conflicting sound bites.  But that’s life as we know it.  Perhaps the biggest conflict in our world today is the between the complexity of our problems and the enduring human preference for bite-sized concepts.  It’s not so much that our problems are so complex that they’re beyond understanding, but they are beyond understanding in an elevator pitch.

Maybe that’s why my blog posts tend to run long.  But if you read this far, you’ve demonstrated a willingness to invest at least a few minutes on an idea that doesn’t fit neatly into a sound bite.