Agriculture, Christian faith, and the world’s future

This summer my family moved to central rural Ohio to live at the epicenter of our relations while I attempt a PhD. In the transition, I have been working at a biblically Wendell Berry-inspired, organic, chemical-free, local-only, farm-to-table food co-op kind of “thing.” It’s a protest alternative to transnational mega-corporate food supply that harms both the biosphere, human health, and ultimately human community. We get Amish, and back-to-the-land small farmer millennial, and family-owned orchard produce, to people who live in the city and have no access to it. The whole concoction is hilariously fun. My boss gave me the following book:

Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible by Ellen Davis of Duke Divinity School (2009).

In the forward by Wendell Berry, Berry says this:

“The human situation, as understood by both biblical agrarians and contemporary ones, is about as follows. We are, howbeit only in part, earthly creatures. We have been given the earth to live, not on, but with and from, and only on the condition that we care properly for it. We did not make it, and we know little about it. In fact, we don’t, and will never, know enough about it to make our survival sure or our lives carefree. Our relation to our land will always remain, to a significant extent, mysterious. Therefore, our use of it must be determined more by reverence and humility, by local memory and affection, than by the knowledge we now call “objective” or “scientific.” Above all, we must not damage it permanently or compromise its natural means of sustaining itself. The best farmers have always accepted this situation as a given, and they have honored the issues of propriety and scale that it urgently raises.”

There’s some solid theology in there. If we can divest ourselves of the end-times/Left Behind/escapist nonsense that has infected so much of contemporary Western Christianity, perhaps we can focus better on bearing the image of the Creator to the rest of creation as His stewards, and live on this earth, as intended. To many young Christians, this is one of the top-tier issues of importance if Christianity is going to be a functional, rather than dysfunctional, influence in our world.

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Earth’s Carrying Capacity. That’s a myth

Theology at the end of this blog. First, some environmental talk. I have an occupational background in environmental biology (not to mention a Master’s degree in International Development), so I understand the idea of carrying capacity. And I don’t believe in the idea that Earth has a “carrying capacity” of humans. Drawn over from environmental studies of animals in an ecosystem, the reason this is a non-starter for me in regards to human population, is that history has shown, time and time again, that people are capable of creatively adapting and developing ways to live in an ecosystem far beyond what its “previous” carrying capacity was thought to be prior to the innovation.

Estimates of the carrying capacity of the Earth (for human population) since van Leeuwenhoek in 1679, have been laughably incorrect over and over again, not to mention ranging from 1 billion to 1000 billion! The low end estimates were based on the agricultural technology of the day (tillable acres and output divided by human consumption per capita) and those estimates of carrying capacity have been repeatedly increased due to the increase in agricultural output per acre enabled by new advances in farming practices. I’m typing this on Point Loma, a very densely populated part of San Diego. The carrying capacity of this area is a million fold what it would have been for the Diegan Indios 500 years ago, but then we aren’t hunter-gatherers. I’ve lived on one of the most densely populated pieces of land in the world: Java, Indonesia. Rice terracing and fish farming have increased the food-producing capabilities of that land far beyond its natural contours. As a 2012 UN study put it, “technological advances in efficiency can be a divisor of per capita impact.” 1 When the interdependent variables in dynamic systems modeling today are applied to carrying capacity, there are so many estimates regarding future variables, the range of estimates becomes so huge as to be meaningless. A 1995 article in Science called for “extreme skepticism” regarding carrying capacity estimates for the reasons I’ve just cited. 2

A meme I saw said “God makes a world for humans – 70 % saltwater ocean.” It was witty on the surface, but it really doesn’t make the point it attempts. Humans figure out how to live in ecosystems as we go. Our ancestors walking out of Africa could not have survived near the Arctic Circle with the savannah lifestyle they knew – but the Inuit and Eskimo have learned how to thrive there for thousands of years – with only Neolithic technology! 70% of our world is indeed oceanic – but we have only scratched the surface on learning how to live there. We can learn to live in oceanic environments just as surely as we did in Arctic ones. Aquatic farming is just in its earliest stages. Not only is there plenty more for us to learn about farming Earth’s various biomes, but we haven’t even hardly started with urban farming and stackable skyscraper farms. Figures for carrying capacity are always and utterly tied to current technology and practices. Any talk of carrying capacity should start by saying “If we never, ever do a single thing different than we do today…” And that’s just silly.

But there’s a strong theological reason to question the idea of carrying capacity. For those Christians who believe we are past the carrying capacity of the Earth, we need to ask “Which of the people currently alive would the Creator God prefer had never been born?” It is theologically repugnant, from a Christian point of view, to imagine there are any. We don’t need less people created in the imago dei. We simply need what every group of people have needed (and worked out) since the digging stick was invented and there were more babies born in the tribe: new ways to find, (or in our case) increase, harvestable output.

And by the way, there is no shortage of food in the world per capita. There are local scarcities we haven’t transported to effectively. It’s not a quantity issue, it’s a transportation issue and a governance issue. Next time let’s talk about carrying capacity and pollutants in a closed system.

1 http://na.unep.net/geas/archive/pdfs/geas_jun_12_carrying_capacity.pdf

2  ttp://www.montana.edu/screel/Webpages/conservation%20biology/cohen.pdf

Environmental Systems Calculus*

When we talk about the human habitation of Earth today, we want quantitative understandings of the planet’s carrying capacity. Materials and energy balances are key tools in achieving a quantitative understanding of the behavior of environmental systems.  They serve as a method of accounting for the flow of energy and materials into and out of a system.  Mass balances provide us with a tool for modeling the production, transport, and fate of things like pollutants or resources in an environment… examples of mass balances include prediction of rainwater runoff, oxygen balance in a stream, the temperature change in a river from the discharge of cooling water from a power plant, or the temperature rise due to global warming.

In its simplest form a materials or mass balance may be viewed as an accounting balance. For an environmental process the equation would be

Accumulation = input – output.

There are both known and unknown inputs, outputs, and accumulations in system modeling, but the mass balance should account for and solve the amount of unknown inputs and outputs.

Time is also a factor: For many environmental problems time is an important factor in establishing the degree of severity of the problem or in designing a solution. Another simple equation from environmental engineering:

Mass rate of accumulation = mass rate of input – mass rate of output

In plug-flow systems, a calculus equation can tell you how many km of pipe is needed to decontaminate a certain amount of polluted water as it flows through the pipe with a catalyst inserted. This kind of rate-of-flow-and-conversion is another calculation we need in order to understand our carrying capacity as a planet.

So, our situation is this. As human civilization has grown and continues to, we are increasing the inputs of some things in the system at a rate that outpaces the output. At the same time, we have a hard time calculating the availability and sustainability of some of the key resources – estimates have been wrong time and again. Likewise, we don’t know the tipping point of some processes, since we’ve never been to this spot before. More on what this means for our future as humans on this planet, and how theology affects our calculations, next time.

* Intro to Environmental Engineering Fourth edition (Davis & Cornwell). My family includes an environmental engineer.

Schumacher: the limitations of economics to reflect reality

“I’ll post it in a few days.” A few days! I am having trouble getting back to my blog as I am being subsumed under a wave of a zillion things to do as I wrap up my job pastoring a fantastic church in rural Pennsylvania, at the same time that I have another zillion things to do preparing for a move to SE Asia.

In any event, here is E.F. Schumacher’s quote, written in 1973, regarding the short-sightedness of modern economic activity: (Well, I think this is the one I had in mind 10 days ago!)

“Economics, moreover, deals with goods in accordance with their market value and not in accordance with what they really are. The same rules and criteria are applied to primary goods, which man has to win from nature, and secondary goods, which presuppose the existence of primary goods and are manufactured from them. All goods are treated the same, because the point of view is fundamentally that of profit-making, and this means that it is inherent in the methodology of economics to ignore man’s dependence on the natural world. (Note from Todd: you can monetize wood, but when there’s no forest left, money does not equal trees anymore).

Another way of stating this is to say that economics deals with goods and services from the point of view of the market, where willing buyer meets willing seller. The buyer is essentially a bargain hunter; he is not concerned with the origin of the goods or the conditions under which they have been produced. His sole concern is to obtain the best value for his money.

The market therefore represents only the surface of society and its significance relates to the momentary situation as it exists there and then. There is no probing into the depths of things, into the natural or social facts that lie behind them. In a sense, the market is the institutionalization of individualism and non-responsibility. Neither buyer nor seller is responsible for anything but himself.

….economists have felt entitled… to treat the entire framework within which economic activity takes place as a given, that is that is to say, as permanent and indestructible. It was no part of their job and, indeed, of their professional competence, to study the effects of economic activity upon the framework. Since there is now increasing evidence of environmental deterioration, particularly in living nature, the entire outlook and methodology of economics is being called into question. The study of economics is too narrow and too fragmentary to lead to valid insights…”

E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (Harper & Row, 1973, pp. 46, 54).