Friday, September 9, 2011


As agroecology emerges as a multidisciplinary topic combining many traditions, both popular and academic, I sense the emergence of a consensus on something of a megastructure.  It is possible to recognize three, sometimes competing but mainly converging, lines of thought that, in a classical Marxist sense seem to be “interpenetrating.”  Science (in the sense of the Western tradition), traditional knowledge (frequently connected to popular social movements), and the natural world, are what seem to be emerging as the three pillars supporting the emerging platform of agroecology. 
            It is convenient to acknowledge, as is so often noted, that to the extent we have anything at all to offer that is new is due to our position on the shoulders of giants.  In Europe we can trace important influences from the English Revolution of 1640 in which peasant farmers changed the world through demands that today would be referred to as sovereignty (it also involved a King having his head cut off).  Subsequent to Cromwell’s defeat of King Charles I, the peasant class became again marginalized and by 1649 their situation was reverting to the former conditions of serfdom.  At that point a movement known as the “diggers” developed a radical agrarian program based on the idea that "true freedom lies where a man receives his nourishment and preservation, and that is in the use of the earth.”  From their “Declaration of the poor oppressed people of England” they note, in part,
“[we] give notice to every one whom it concerns, . . .  that some of you, that have been Lords of Manors, do cause the Trees and Woods that grow upon the Commons, . . .  to be cut down and sold, for your own private use, Thereby the Common Land, which your own mouths doe say belongs to the poor, is impoverished, and the poor oppressed people robbed of their Rights, while you give them cheating words, . . .Therefore we are resolved to be cheated no longer, nor be held under the slavish fear of you no longer, seeing the Earth was made for us, as well as for you.. . . . Therefore we require, and we resolve to take both Common Land, and Common woods to be a livelihood for us, and look upon you as equal with us, not above us, knowing very well, that England the land of our Nativity, is to be a common Treasury of livelihood to all, . . . ”
The diggers may have been short lived, but their ideology lives on as a militant attachment to the land and the right to use it, and a rejection of illegitimate power, especially a power that cynically abuses and sometimes destroys the “Common Land,” or in modern parlance, the natural world.  Perhaps the diggers were the first agroecologists.
            But primacy is frequently accorded the agronomist Sir Alfred Howard, dispatched to India by Queen Victoria to teach the Indians the modern techniques of agriculture.  Working with his first wife Gabrielle, the Howard team developed a variety of techniques that would today be regarded as organic.  Most importantly, it was their associating with, and willingness to learn from, local traditional farmers that lead them to reject, at least in part, the growing industrial system.  As Sir Howard is so frequently quoted:
“By 1910 I had learnt how to grow healthy crops, practically free from disease, without the slightest help from . . . all the . . . expensive paraphernalia of the modern experiment station.”
His willingness to listen to and learn from small-scale Indian farmers was key to his development of several agricultural processes that today appear almost standard, such as composting.  The Diggers and the Howard team represent the beginnings of what we argue is one essential feature of today’s agroecology – social organization and political actions, combined with the intimate knowledge of local farmers.
            A second tendency also has deep historical roots.  Anthropologists rightly emphasize that prehistoric people not only had an appreciation and knowledge of local ecological forces, they applied that knowledge to construct their agricultural systems.  From the Chinampas of Mexico to the terraces of Peru, technological inputs into agricultural systems bore the stamp of intimate knowledge of local ecological principles.  Although the articulation of those local ecological principles may not have been recognizable in modern ecological terms, and frequently took on the semi-religious form of veneration of “mother earth,” the close association with the natural world that inevitably was the case with early farmers required them to become ecologists in principle.  Although their knowledge may have been quite restricted in that it was based on their experience locally, it was nevertheless deep, and, most importantly, was based on their understanding of how the natural world works.
            In more recent times we see the important influence of Richard St. Barbe Baker who served the British Empire in Africa and developed an almost religious tie to forests.  As a formally trained forester he was sent to Kenya where he found a scared landscape, the result of a century of irresponsible farming under British rule.  He set out to reforest large sections of the country, a task for which he formed the “Men of the Trees” movement (today’s International Tree Foundation).  Much of interest is to be found in Baker’s writings about forests, but for purposes of this essay, he saw in the forests lessons that would become important for agroecology (e.g., natural cycling of nutrients occurred in natural forests but not in many of the agricultural systems that displaced them).  He sought insights from “natural” ecosystems (for him, forests) that would guide the planning of agriculture, a forerunner for what would become “natural systems agriculture.” 
            A third tendency, is likely as old, if not older than the Digger’s movement.  When Galilio trained his telescope on Jupiter, he saw the moons.  Several sequential drawings of the position of those moons led him to imagine that they were orbiting around the far larger mass of the planet Jupiter itself.  He deduced that they were nothing special, that as those moons orbited the planet, the planets orbited the sun, which Copernicus had deduced earlier, a deduction that got Galileo confined under house arrest for the best part of his later years. A half century later Newton noted:
“. . . a leaden ball projected from the top of a mountain . . . parallel to the horizon. . . is carried in a curved line to [some distance] . . .  [by] increasing the velocity we may at pleasure increase the distance to which it might be projected, and diminish the curvature of the line, which it might describe, till at last it should fall at [a greater distance] . . . or even might go quite round the whole earth before it falls [or even] so that it might never fall to the earth.”
Thus from the simple observation that “gravity is the thing that attracts masses to one another” and the practical observation that almost anyone could easily see (the leaden ball), Newton imagined the generation of a mass orbiting another mass and deduced that the orbits Galileo and Copernicus had seen were a simple consequence of this “law,” which today we know as the law of gravity. The fact that there was some simple mathematics that could be applied to the system should be viewed as a technical footnote to the main insight of a lead ball propelled parallel to the surface of the earth at great velocity. 
            Newton had a goal that would not normally be associated with the modern scientific method.  He wished to understand the nature of God, a point that is made crystal clear in his own writings, completely uncontested by later historians.  It is, of course, true that every scientist has important underlying goals in mind as he or she does science is, and the admonition that he or she should examine those goals carefully is something that any thinking colleague should encourage. Much as Newton felt he was discovering the laws created by the Christian God, which unquestionably supported the theocratic basis of monarchy, Darwin felt he was discovering a way to eliminate the institute of slavery.  In either case there was a moral background that provided meaning to their activities. We moderns would likely condemn one and applaud the other.
            Science and the scientific method have become foundational in the modern world.  While it is true that “science” is frequently used and abused to support nefarious ends, the basic principles of science, so eloquently expressed by Newton himself, remain a powerful way of understanding those parts of the natural world that are amenable to its application.  It is evident that there are myriad “ways of knowing” and it would be foolish to suggest that some of them were illegitimate a priori.  However, when it comes to organizing human interference in the natural world, the use of classical scientific principles, whether in the construction of an airplane or an agroecosystem, is essential.  Rejecting science, for whatever reason, burdens us with trying to solve problems with our hands tied.  Worse, in contested terrain (e.g., the debate over GMOs), allowing the other side the use of science but rejecting it ourselves, would be consigning our side to a huge handicap.
            These three tendencies form the three essential legs upon which the agroecological platform should, must, be based.  Although I am certain that other framings could be imagined, and I admit that the issue is far more complicated than the three dimensional version I offer up here, this simplified framing provides us with a readily understandable philosophical foundation and enables practitioners to see connections among diverse activities.  The simplified tripartite classification is that 1) local natural systems provide the underlying clues, 2) traditional knowledge (and political pressure from organized small-scale farmers) provides the local practical guidance, and 3) science provides a broader vision and practical guide for construction.  The science of agroecology lies at the intersection of these three tendencies and the fact that practitioners seem to always specialize on one or the other can be viewed not as debate on relevance, but rather contribution to the central goal.


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