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Can Sustainable Agriculture Survive Under Capitalism

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It was one of the most beautiful—and one of the most sustainable—farms that Ryanne Pilgeram had ever seen. When she arrived, Penny, the farmer, was sorting through vegetables in the shed. Her husband Jeff, who had a full-time job as a doctor, was hauling flakes of alfalfa to feed the draft horses that they used in place of tractors.

Pilgeram, a sociologist at the University of Idaho, was touring the farm as part of her research into sustainable agriculture in the Pacific Northwest. She had grown up on a ranch in Montana and was already familiar with the world of conventional farming, although her family’s own land had been lost in the farm crisis of the 1980s.

Perhaps for that reason, she froze when a feral dog darted out from a shed and, in front of Pilgeram and the two farmers, ran off with a live chicken, which fell limp in its jaws. This dog was no stranger to the couple. She had just given birth to a litter of puppies, and Pilgeram later learned that she’d been stealing a chicken every day for a week.

But instead of going for his gun, Jeff offered Pilgeram one of the new puppies. She describes the moment as one of culture shock. “They were super chill about it, like it was not a big deal,” she says. “I just kept thinking that it’s a pretty privileged position to be in, to not care if some of your livestock is taken.”

In many ways, Pilgeram found that this couple (whose names she has changed in compiling her research) epitomized the new generation of farmers moving into Western states like Idaho, Washington, and Montana.

Wealthy, educated, and cultured—and with a deep ideological commitment to sustainability—these formerly urban dwellers have migrated to rural areas, where they’ve been able to use savings and inheritances to purchase small plots of relatively cheap land. Here, they can grow organic, low-carbon crops and provide an alternative to the mass-produced, pesticide-covered produce sold by conventional farms.

In many ways, it’s a welcome change. Agriculture is responsible for around 9 percentof the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions—from fertilizer releasing nitrous oxide, for instance, or from cows emitting methane. And large-scale farming isn’t just bad for the environment; the application of pesticides has serious health implications for those who work on farms. Recent studies have linked high pesticide exposure to a poor sense of smell and a doubled risk of cardiovascular disease among Latino farm workers.

But Pilgeram worries that this improved model of agriculture is fundamentally incapable of surviving in a corporatized America—and that the sacrifices these people are making to survive are steadily chipping away at their claims of sustainability.

One problem is the price of the produce. Many of us have had the experience of turning up at our local farmers’ market, armed with tote bags, only to slink back to the supermarket after seeing the prices of the vegetables on offer. This is hardly the fault of the individual farmers. Still, as Pilgeram points out in a paper that she published in 2011, the costs involved with running such an operation mean that the benefits are inevitably affordable only to a small (generally white and middle-class) portion of society.

Meanwhile, those able to afford the cost of setting up a sustainable farm tend to have already benefited from capitalism. Many such farmers made their money earlier in life, through well-paid city jobs, and decided to invest the proceeds into land, according to Pilgeram’s research. Others relied on a member of their family to support the farm with wages earned outside the farm. Some simply had inherited wealth. “You basically have to be rich to farm, really,” said one farmer whom Pilgeram interviewed.

More recently, Pilgeram has been studying the role of women in sustainable agriculture. She’s found that the new cash-for-access model of farming has actually created opportunities for female empowerment within the male-dominated world of conventional agriculture, where women had traditionally assumed the role of farmers’ wife. Today, women are able to buy their own land and farm their own way.

But it’s a limited victory, Pilgeram writes in her most recent paper, published in November of 2018, and empowers only a certain class of women “while leaving [the capitalist] system basically entirely unaffected”—and which also risks gentrifying the towns to which these farmers move, further entrenching the country’s class divide.

Then there’s the problem that the system ultimately rests on a sequence of compromises and sacrifices that the farmers themselves must make, regardless of their ideological commitment to the cause. These sacrifices are personal, environmental, and social. “Only the select few, the … richest amongst us are really taking care of land in a truly sustainable way,” one farmer reported.

In some cases, farmers have exploited their own bodies to make ends meet, working for free or for obscenely long hours; one woman reported working 120 hours a week to ensure that her cheese remained as affordable as possible. Others depended on interns or volunteers who were themselves from privileged backgrounds and could afford to work for free. (Most farmers, Pilgeram noted, avoided the often-exploitative practice of relying on poorly paid Hispanic laborers.)

“The economic system that we have in place makes it impossible, really, to create a socially just food system. It’s not possible under capitalism,” Pilgeram says. Without a drastic change to this system, sustainable agriculture risks becoming an “esoteric side note” to conventional agriculture, she adds—or simply another way for those with money to live healthier lives than those without.

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Saoirse McHugh: We need to talk about capitalism

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N HER FORTNIGHTLY column for TheJournal.ie, Saoirse McHugh of the Green Party writes about what we can do as individuals in the face of climate chaos.   

A most ludicrous situation is taking place in which we are disrupting weather systems we have relied on for centuries, poisoning drinking water, destroying habitats that provide food and fuel and pushing ourselves outside of the relatively stable climate we have enjoyed for the past few thousand years.

Despite all of this, most of our media and the great majority of our politicians refuse to talk about the reason why I believe this is happening. What is driving us to continue down such a grim and unpredictable path? The answer is capitalism.

Extracting profit from resources (often privately owned) and labour only to reinvest in further extraction has wreaked havoc on our world. The accumulation of profit as a shaping force in society leaves so much unaccounted for and undervalued.

In general, there is no cost given to implications such as resource use, pollution, and (much and all as I don’t like the term) ecosystem services such as air and water cleaning, pollination and nitrogen cycling.

When these are factored into cost it can have an alleviating impact, but of course the natural world does not trade in dollars and no amount of money can ever compensate for species extinction, coral reefs dying or the damage caused by oil spills like the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The need for growth and the relentless expansion into and enclosing of new commons, such as carbon use and genetic information, means that capitalism is entirely incompatible with a finite planet and a just world.

Despite all this it is rare to hear our economic system discussed openly in Ireland outside of a few groups or lone politicians. It has developed the impression of being outside of our control, almost like some God imposed this system upon us.

When the conversation comes up politically, our elected representatives shy away from it and speak in vague terms about prosperity and growth. They do not delve into the idea that not only do we have the power to begin changing our economic system, but we have a moral and environmental imperative to do so.

‘But look at North Korea and Cuba’ 

I am not fully sure why there is such hesitancy to speak about capitalism. Is it because decades of American television have well and truly damaged the ability to talk about it without somebody bringing up the Soviet Union and communism?

I myself have had so many conversations where capitalism comes up and is met with: “But look at North Korea and Cuba, look at how many people died in Soviet Russia.” No doubt atrocities occurred in countries which were under a different economic system.

However, that argument ignores and minimises the atrocities that have been carried out in capitalist countries. The suffering and destruction capitalism has caused and is continuing to cause in the world is immeasurable.

It is a system with its origins in colonialism and to this very day there is a massive extraction of wealth from previously colonised countries. The social, physical, and economic violence used to keep these relationships in place is beyond comprehension and much of it has become accepted as normal.

It is ridiculous to talk about environmentalism without talking about capitalism, yet many people do so. Not only is it a part of our lives but it is the system within which we all operate.

It is all that most of us have ever known and for that reason people tend to avoid the conversation, perhaps for fear of looking radical or outside of the world of common sense.

The promises of green growth or sustainable capitalism are tempting, yet I fear that every year spent chasing these will-o-the-wisps is a year lost while continuing to worsen our predicament.

There will be no climate justice until we move to a different economic system. We need to halt the extraction of wealth from previously colonized countries and, more than that, repay and compensate these countries as fully as possible.

Obviously, it is not just capitalism that damages the environment. There are discussions of petroleum-based socialism and of communism focused on growth, which are extremely damaging too but we have arrived at a time where capitalism is the dominant economic model.

There is no point in skirting around the issue, we need to transform our economies and recognise that any politician who is not engaging in the conversation about our economic model and ways to change it is wasting everyone’s time. 

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Letter: Socialism may not be the cure but capitalism is the illness

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Socialism may not be the cure but capitalism is the illness. All Hanson offers is more of the same prescriptions that brought us to climate change, inequality, huge government, corporate and private debts, erosion of our infrastructure, a health care crisis, international turmoil, etc.

How about some ownership and something new? If we redefine the goal as sustainability instead of growth, universal equity in services and opportunity, building community instead of dominance, and building a world for the seventh generation in the future, then we must acknowledge that capitalism as we have known it is broken.

Rather than try to pigeonhole the opposition with a derogatory label, let’s find a way to utilize human character to fulfill the promise of a better world for all living creatures both now and in the future.

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Let’s restore our values, do away with capitalism

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One of the worst things that colonialism, apartheid and capitalism did to our people was to destroy the black family structures, the writer says.

In this past decade, we witnessed a degeneration of politics across the spectrum, with social media, notwithstanding its use, becoming the worst platform for corrosive politics.

We also witnessed moral degeneration and character assassination as influenced by capitalism.

The moral degeneration in SA is very high and that directly reflects the politics of our country.

This open letter is an invitation for us, more especially ANC and Alliance partners, to think critically about who we are as a society and perhaps champion ways in which we can restore some of the values that we have lost.

No more buyers for the escapism Top Billing is selling

Of all the feasts and feats of Top Billing in the past 23 years, there are perhaps not enough Gucci slides that can quite help it dodge its flip and …Opinion1 month ago

One of the worst things that colonialism, apartheid and capitalism did to our people was to destroy the black family structures. And one of our loopholes as the ANC from 1994 onwards was not to restore our values of ubuntu and revive the black family unit.

Twenty-five years into democracy, it is in our hands as ANC to dissociate ourselves with capitalism because capitalism is an evil that causes the corruption we are seeing now.

It is capitalist ideas that are behind killings of our comrades.

Capitalism is an inherently evil system that thrives on hate, jealousy and inhumanity.

Viwe Sidali, Duncan Village, East London

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