"We have found the enemy, and he is us" -- and our system of social organization

  • Posted on: 6 March 2013
  • By: benfell


Any [social] movement needs a target.  But this isn’t the Arab Spring.  Climate change is not Hosni Mubarak.  This isn’t the Occupy moment.  Climate change is not simply “Wall Street” or the 1%.  It’s not simply the Obama administration, a polarized Congress filled with energy-company-supported climate ignorers and deniers, or the Chinese leadership that’s exploiting coal for all its worth, or the Canadian government that abandoned the Kyoto treaty and supports that tar-sands pipeline, or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has put its money where its mouth is in American electoral politics when it comes to climate change.  Yes, the giant energy companies, which are making historic profits off our burning planet, couldn’t be worse news or more culpable.  The oil billionaires are a disaster, and so on.  Still, targets are almost too plentiful and confusing.  There are indeed villains, but so many of them!  And what, after all, about the rest of us who lend a hand in burning fossil fuels as if there were no tomorrow?  What about our consumer way of life to which all of us are, to one degree or another, addicted, and which has been a model for the rest of the world.  Who then is the enemy?  What exactly is to be done?  In other words, there is an amorphousness to who’s aiding and abetting climate change that can make the targeting on which any movement thrives difficult. (Engelhardt, March 3, 2013)

“We have found the enemy,” proclaims a protagonist from Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strip, gazing upon a litter-strewn landscape in an Earth Day poster, “and he is us” (quoted in BytesMaster, April 25, 2011). I remember that first Earth Day, in the year for which that poster was made, in 1970. With my classmates, I planted flowers in a garden alongside Lincoln Elementary School in Mt. Lebanon, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My more prosaic mother had me pull some weeds, compelling me to confront the arbitrariness of the distinction between weeds and desired plants.

It is good to plant gardens and not good to litter, but I look back upon that day with a certain sadness. For while Tom Engelhardt (March 3, 2013) raises a point in the passage with which I opened this essay about the difficulty of finding a scapegoat for the problems of climate change, and while “we” may very well be the “enemy,” it is not just “us” who are the “enemy,” but rather that in seeking a more sustainable way of living, we confront an entire system of social organization that is inherently unsustainable. This social order indeed implicates most of us in our complicity and in some of our behaviors, but overturning it would require something more than reducing our individual carbon footprints.

Commercial Society

John Bodley (2008) offers a dichotomy between what he calls indigenous society, that is, society which lived in small, low density groups, that remained small and lived more or less in harmony with their environments, and what he calls commercial society, that is, society which lives in growing, increasingly high density groups, that may persist only through growth which comes at the often genocidal expense of indigenous neighbors, with the clear implication that such a society will run into trouble when it runs out of planet, for “there is,” at least within the bounds of foreseeable technology, “no planet B” (unknown, quoted in Engelhardt, March 3, 2013). In Bodley’s argument, all humans lived in indigenous society in the Paleolithic—and some still do, on the margins of commercial society, which arose with the Neolithic, that is, the beginning of settled agriculture. This binary seems simplistic—Jared Diamond (1999) offers instead a taxonomy of social organization that includes bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states—but the binary serves Bodley’s purpose of advocacy for indigenous people and aligns with roughly similar dichotomies between authoritarian hierarchical and egalitarian approaches to social organization to be found in a number of works by Riane Eisler (1995), Philip Slater (2009), George Lakoff (2002), and Gerhard Lenski (1966).

Something clearly changed with the Neolithic. Oelschlaeger (1991) records a shift in attitudes from Paleolithic humans seeing nature as something they lived with and in, to Neolithic humans marking off land to raise crops—the beginning of domination of nature, in parallel with the social changes Bodley (2008) observes, the beginning of domination by some humans of other humans (see also Lenski, 1966). By the 17th century, this had become an attitude of command and control. The Cartesian view of nature was of a machine, and animals were seen as machines—“incapable of such feelings as pain” (Oelschlaeger, 1991, p. 88). If these machines were in any way broken, for “[w]hat sin had shattered,” Francis Bacon reductionistically imagined, “science could in large part repair” (John Passmore, quoted in Oelschlaeger, 1991, p. 83).

Neolithic humans and their successors also carved up territory, establishing strict boundaries between “ours” and “theirs,” now not only for fields but for everything else, including highly centralized modern states, which Weber (1918/2010) defined “sociologically only in terms of the specific means peculiar to [them], as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force” (p. 114), a facet that Lenski (1966) saw as necessitating propaganda in an effort to establish “legitimacy,” thereby gaining the acquiescence of the people and limiting the need for force.

Economics demands, in effect, an increasing productivity; it is impossible to accept the nonproducers into the body social—the loafers, the coupon-clippers, the social misfits, and the saboteurs—none of these have any place. The police must develop methods to put these useless consumers to work. The problem is the same in a capitalist state (where the Communist is the saboteur) and in a Communist state (where the saboteur is the internationalist in the pay of capitalism). (Ellul, 1964, p. 111)

Muller (March/April, 2013) sees “commercial society” as having originated in the 18th century, with capitalism, noting that most people had raised their own food prior to this time. It might be more accurate to view commercial society as a developing and intensifying system of social organization over a far longer period of time. Settled agriculture meant there was “surplus labor;” it enabled specialization of labor and more trade for goods and services that made a dominator (commercial) society possible, by freeing some to “specialize” in administering a growing population that seems to have been more oriented to consumption—and thus wealth (Bodley, 2008; Burroughs, 2008; Lenski, 1966). As food supplies no longer reliably constrain population (Burroughs, 2008), this society expands, colonizes, displaces, and sometimes exterminates indigenous people. Bodley sees something of a cycle—systems theorists would say a positive (destabilizing) feedback—as expanding territory required more people, and more people required more resources (including land), requiring more territory to extract those resources from, also connected the beginning of domination to the Neolithic. Burroughs correlates “continual warfare that seems to have been such an integral part of recorded history” (p. 274) with “centralized, hierarchical societies” (p. 273). All this completes a picture in which it is apparent that a significant preoccupation of elites is an often violent competition with each other over which of them may do what to whom and what where.

As colonization expanded, so did the returns, leading to the Industrial Revolution, which dramatically increased production. Converting mass society into consumer society—so as to consume surplus production, regardless of environmental or social cost—thus became a major project involving cultural changes in religion, advertising, education, and attitudes toward debt (Shah, May 14, 2003). But we should also recognize that industrialization required more:

The process by which man is deprived of his self begins with his institutionalized training in public school for a place in the machinery of the State. The object of the training is not merely to teach him how to perform some specific function, it is to make him become that function; to see and judge himself and others in terms of functions, and to abandon any aspect of self, thinking, questioning, feeling, loving, that has no utility for either production or consumption in the Corporate State. The training for the role of consumer is just as important as the training for a job, and at least equally significant for loss of self. (Reich, 1970, pp. 141-142)

The point was not only to reverse previous attitudes stigmatizing debt, but to persuade people to construct their self-images based on what they managed to purchase, including homes and various gadgets (Matutinovié, 2007; Shah, May 14, 2003). As we judge ourselves and others by our ability to purchase, the implication is that we effectively judge by the ability to secure credit and by income. This leads to an endorsement of wealth—George Lakoff (2002) argues that the metaphors that are intrinsic to our thinking conflate wealth with moral superiority (see also Lakoff & Johnson, 1999, for how Lakoff understands metaphors in cognition)—and arguably led rather spectacularly to the financial crisis that began in 2007, for which the absence of criminal prosecutions for fraud remains a point of contention (Frontline, January 22, 2013a, January 22, 2013b; Greider, February 5, 2013; Morgenson & Story, April 14, 2011) and is further evidence of a double-standard in treatment of the wealthy and of the poor in the U.S. criminal “justice” system (Reiman, 2004).

Settled agriculture, it seems, had implications that went far beyond a systematic growing of food for a population of emerging hunter-gatherers who, around 12,000 years ago, “began to produce significantly more offspring than they could feed” (Burroughs, 2008, p. 189). Agriculture laid the groundwork for this monstrous and unsustainable system of social organization we now have, that appears unable to correct itself, in which elites are substantially preoccupied with often violent contests for the resources of humans, animals, and territory (Benfell, March 15, 2012; Burroughs, 2008; Diamond, 1999; Lenski, 1966; Oelschlaeger, 1991). That this is our system of social organization implicates nearly all of us who have not clung to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the destruction of our environment, insidiously and ironically, even those of us who seek to rescue egalitarian social relations and a sustainable system of social organization from, at least in part, an ancient legacy, but who rely on industrialized food systems and modern technological development for our present survival and for the promulgation of our messages.

But agriculture is not merely the origin of a problematic system of social organization; it also participates in and reflects the problems of that social order. Agriculture, then, will serve as a hub for this essay, describing how this order which originated with a growing population—hence, a beginning focus on procreation, followed by an examination of the military that follows from a contest for resources—but also the ways in which farming is complicit with an unsustainable way of living.


The first, most basic, behavior committed by nearly all of us that is most destructive and the one that frames many other harms to the environment is excess procreation. There are well over seven billion of us now—even at six billion, it was already over thirty times what our population would likely have grown to had we not adopted settled agriculture—and our population is generally expected to grow to roughly ten to twelve billion by the year 2100 (Population Reference Bureau, 2013; Townsend, 2003; Union of Concerned Scientists, August, 2000). According to the Center for Biological Diversity (n.d.), this growth comes at the expense of habitat for other species; and depletes water, land, trees, and fossil fuels. As it happens, a significant portion of this costs originates in agriculture, which this essay is organized around, and because agriculture has meant the marking off of fields, a contest for territory.


William Burroughs (2008) is careful to distinguish between an “absence of evidence” of war in the Paleolithic and “evidence of absence” of war (p. 271) but it is apparent that war is intrinsic to the development of large scale societies—embodied as states—in competition for resources, but directed by self-serving elites, as each commercial society encroached on surrounding territory to acquire these resources (Bodley, 2008; Lenski, 1966). As Max Oelschlaeger (1991) puts it,

In the context of agriculture, war became conceivable and sometimes desirable. Archaeological evidence (for example, skulls with traumatic injury inflicted by an ax) confirms the existence of lethal violence during the Paleolithic. Hunter-gatherers episodically engaged in physical confrontations both within and between clans. Institutionalized warfare, however, seems unlikely for Paleolithic culture, since there was neither booty to be won, property to be protected, nor a central authority to organize an army. Hunter-foragers have a biological rationale not to fight among themselves, since injuries and mortalities would threaten group survival. Any contact with another band of human beings was likely to be fleeting, and even at such encounters, significant injury to either group could be grievous. . . . The Paleolithic era was thus devoid of ideological, economical, or political rationales for war. . . . With the Neolithic revolution, including the rise of central authority and increased population, the means and rationale for war appeared. Burgeoning populations supplied the human power necessary to fight battles without impairing group survival. And war was useful as a source of slaves and land. (p. 29)

Weber’s (1918/2010) association of states with force and Lenski’s (1966) association of war even with simple horticultural societies enable us to view war, coercion, and violence as apparently inherent to our system of social organization. Even at this, however, the United States is exceptional with a defense budget, by far the largest in the world, whose exact size is estimated at up to nearly $1 trillion (Hellman & Kramer, May 22, 2012) and by a history of war that includes only sixteen calendar years since 1775 without military conflict (Benfell, January 2, 2013b). The environmental costs are staggering:

As it stands, the Department of Defense is the largest polluter in the world, producing more hazardous waste than the five largest US chemical companies combined. Depleted uranium, petroleum, oil, pesticides, defoliant agents such as Agent Orange, and lead, along with vast amounts of radiation from weaponry produced, tested, and used, are just some of the pollutants with which the US military is contaminating the environment. (Project Censored, 2009)

This description is unfortunately sufficiently abstract that it seems to downplay such impacts as the mass deforestation in southeast Asia in the Vietnam war (which crossed boundaries into Laos and Cambodia), the devastation of atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the close of World War II, the loss (or worse, the continued use, because local people have little alternative) of agricultural land that has been made too dangerous to farm by leftover mines, and the routine use of depleted uranium munitions in urban environments in the Iraq war.

It is probably unwise to extrapolate from U.S. military impacts to world military impacts; not all countries are as militarily adventurous as the U.S. and even though U.S. spending is a significant portion of the world total (Pike, August 20, 2012), the amount of spending does not readily translate to aggregate environmental harm. But the broad view remains that war is one means by which we destroy our environment—in this case intentionally—so as, because war is a massively organized contest of coercion, to impose our wills upon each other. Taking a still broader view, the attitude that all life is secondary to various forms of competition—with varying degrees and forms of violence ranging from that of the marketplace up to and including the possibility of thermonuclear war—among humans is symptomatic of an attitude that is far removed from a Paleolithic and indigenous attitude toward nature as something to be lived in and with (Bodley, 2008; Oelschlaeger, 1991).


But scientists believe that exposure to toxic pesticides is only one factor that has led to the decline of honey bees in recent years. The destruction and fragmentation of bee habitats, as a result of land development and the spread of monoculture agriculture, deprives pollinators of their diverse natural food supply. This has already led to the extinction of a number of wild bee species. The planting of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops – some of which now contain toxic insecticides within their genetic structure – may also be responsible for poisoning bees and weakening their immune systems. (Schiffman, April 9, 2012)

This essay has already suggested that the implementation of agriculture led to arguably deleterious changes in social organization. These include the development of a rapidly growing hierarchical society maintaining order by means of coercion that extended itself, insatiably—because its very mode of existence exhausts the ground on which it exists—onto greater and greater territory, and thus into conflict with other societies. But the plight of the honeybees points to a more complex issue: Many of our current problems may have begun with agriculture, but a systems perspective of mutual causation (Macy, 1995), in which agriculture affects the rest of society and the rest of society affects agriculture, generating unsustainable emergent properties, is a more tenable view of the horrendously destructive situation in which we humans find ourselves.


Obvious requirements for growing plants on a mass scale are land, water, soil, a favorable climate, and sunlight. In addition, pesticides—both herbicides to limit weeds and insecticides to limit insects—may be used in non-organic farming, and fertilizer may be used. Most crops are grown from seed, and recently this has come to include genetically engineered seeds which promise—but do not necessarily deliver—increased yields and greater pest or herbicide resistance. This section will attempt to review these impacts and their relationship with dominator society.


Wilderness was seen as mysterious and frightening; forested regions were thought to be unhealthy because the light rarely reached the ground, and the forest-dwelling Indians were seen as men “transformed into beasts” or as “bondslaves of Sathan.” The English naturalist John Josselyn’s 1672 description of the view north from a Connecticut mountain sums it up: “clothed with infinite thick woods,” the landscape was daunting terrible.” Standing in aggregate, trees seemed to serve no useful purpose and a pleasing vista was one that was cleared of trees, plowed, and planted. Moreover, the lumber could be put to good use. (Outwater, 1996, p. 36)

Alice Outwater (1996) writes that “about half the contiguous United States was once old-growth forest” (p. 37). These were old-growth forests, out of which Indians would practice slash-and-burn agriculture—with burning returning nutrients to the soil in the absence of manure. But “new tracts of land are required every three or four years when the soil wears out” (p. 37). Europeans brought hogs which rooted about and damaged forest ecosystems, helping to drive out Indians who relied on resources that the hogs eliminated. Europeans also established permanent settlements built largely from wood. Various trees were put to various uses, for furniture, for building materials, and, if for nothing else, fuel, but the end was a mass deforestation that made land available for farming. By the end of the 19th century, 75 percent of the forests between the Mississippi Valley and the Appalachian mountains had been cleared. A similar cutting of redwood forests in the west could reduce rainfall in cleared areas by at least half. Replacing these forests with tree farms does not restore the old growth habitat that wildlife in the ecosystem relied upon, nor does it restore the lichens that fertilized the soil and helped to defend the trees from insects.


An alternative organization for this essay could have been around water; indeed, water may be the best example of the weakness of a reductive approach to problems of sustainability. It carries things, both good and bad, and both necessary and undesirable. As such water appears repeatedly in the subsections that follow. Though the planet’s surface is covered mostly in (salt) water, getting fresh water in usable form can be a challenge. In the Great Plains, farmers must pump water from the Ogallala acquifer, which is no longer being recharged at the rate it once was by Rocky Mountain runoff and is now being depleted at a rate fourteen times the rate it is being recharged (Barlow, September 16, 2006b; Outwater, 1996).

Human development has generally meant water pollution, water waste, and groundwater contamination and depletion, threatening water supplies needed for human consumption, agriculture, and industrial production. Dams obstruct migratory fish in the western U.S. while reservoirs in China accumulate silt trapped behind the dams that would otherwise flow to the sea, carrying nutrients for coastal fish that many humans use for food (Gleick, January, 2009; Outwater, 1996). The China Three Gorges Project Corporation has claimed to have solved the problem of silt build-up at Three Gorges by using floodwaters to flush silt out through sluice gates at the bottom of the dam and to help deepen river beds downstream (Chao, October 4, 2004). However it appears that some within the Chinese government doubt these claims and may even be attempting to distance themselves from the project (Kuhn, January 2, 2008).

Where nature used to purify water, with features including beaver dams, wetlands, and river meanders, woods, stream banks, and marshes, pollution from agricultural runoff, manufacturing, and sewage now adds to the load of an impaired system and we must build water treatment plants to supply ourselves with potable water. This may serve some human health needs, but it does nothing for the environment.

It is also not getting us where we need to be, even for humans. Maude Barlow (September 16, 2006a) argues that two-thirds of the world’s population will lack access to clean water by the year 2025. Many places in the world—including in the developed world—will, due to pollution and waste, exhaust surface and ground water supplies within ten or twenty years. Barlow notes that water availability is dividing along class lines; the wealthy retain access for extravagant use—swimming pools and the like—as increasingly scarce water comes to be seen, according to neoliberal ideology, as a commodity which can be allocated through markets, rather than being seen as a necessity for all life. Meanwhile, the poor face privatization of water supplies, unaffordable water costs, and water-related diseases including cholera. Barlow further points out that urbanization, by covering land with concrete, prevents water from being reabsorbed into the earth to recharge groundwater supplies.


Clearing forests for agriculture has, in many cases, made land available that has, in Europe and North America, remained agriculturally productive for decades or centuries, albeit with an increased need for fertilizer, as food consumed in cities has meant that waste does not return to replenish the soil in which it was grown (Clark & York, 2008). Outwater (1996) notes that wind and rain are eroding the exposed topsoil in the Great Plains of North America. Such depletion is exacerbated in tropical rain forests where, when cleared—sometimes by slaves (Grezo, November 20, 2012)—and put to agricultural use, the layer of top soil is rapidly depleted of nutrients. In Brazil, this depletion occurs typically within three years, at which point farmers find it more affordable to simply move on to new plots, abandoning the old ones, rather than to reclaim the land they have already cleared (Camill, 1999; Pimm, et al., 2001):

Soils in tropical regions are millions of years old, having escaped major disturbances like glaciation that reset the clock on soil development (Richter and Markewitz 1995). Old soils are highly weathered aluminum and iron oxide clays that are acidic and deficient in plant nutrients, especially phosphorus. Tropical ecosystems are adapted to nutrient-poor soils as evidenced by the relatively large fraction of ecosystem nutrients stored in vegetation (compared to soils) and widespread plant adaptations like evergreen leaves that conserve nutrient loss (Vitousek and Sanford 1986). Many attempts to bring land under cultivation or conversion to pasture for cattle have failed in the long run without supplements from fertilizers and pesticides (Fig. 5). Cattle numbers decline from an average of two healthy head per hectare following clearing to less than 0.3 head per hectare 20 years following clearing (Serro and Homma 1993). After just two years of grazing, some cattle exhibited 20% mortality and complete reproductive failure due to a lack of phosphorus in pasture grasses (Buschbacher 1987). Land reclamation efforts often require $250 to $475 per hectare for fertilizers and weed management, an enormous sum compared to a cost of $70 to clear an additional hectare of virgin forest (Serro and Homma 1993, Southgate 1998). (Camill, 1999)

Unfortunately, the problem of soil in agriculture is not merely about what is washed or blown away, but also about that which accumulates. Irrigation seems to be a particularly effective means of gathering various kinds of salts, only some of which can be used by the plants being grown. In the absence of careful—and apparently costly—management, these salts eventually make fields unusable.

Sustainable food crops, suitable to local soil conditions and micro-climates, have been replaced by water-guzzling, hybrid, and genetically modified "cash" crops which, apart from being wholly dependent on the market, are also heavily dependent on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, canal irrigation, and the indiscriminate mining of groundwater. As abused farmland, saturated with chemicals, gradually becomes exhausted and infertile, agricultural input costs arise, ensnaring small farmers in a debt trap. Over the last few years, more than one hundred and eighty thousand Indian farmers have committed suicide. (Roy, 2009, p. 8)

Victor M. Ponce (n.d.) advocates enabling rivers to carry the waste salts to the sea, which would mean, among other things, not using every last drop of river water (which in many cases in the southwestern U.S. is already over-allocated, that is, more water is allocated from a river—notoriously the Colorado—than actually flows in the river) for immediate human needs. However, since some of these salts leach from the soil itself, these salts would add to a brew of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, along with the pollutants produced by other human activities, that now already contaminate rivers and—ultimately—seas and oceans. (Pimm, et al., 2001; Outwater, 1996). Ponce acknowledges a need for a holistic, that is, systemic, approach.

Fertilizers and pesticides

Pesticides released farmers from their ancient battle against insects. Chemical fertilizers provided a cheaper and more concentrated source of nutrients than manure, and crop rotation was no longer necessary. Herbicides took care of the weeds that competed with crops for nutrients and light. With new high-yield varieties, chemical helpers, irrigated fields, and oil-fueled machinery, big harvests were nearly guaranteed. Corn, a heavy user of nitrogen, could be grown in a field year after year. For a short time, it seemed as though food production no longer depended on nature at all. (Outwater, 1996, p. 157)

Reality, as Outwater (1996) goes on to explain, is not so simple. Pesticides accumulate in higher concentrations in animals higher up on the food chain, and if we humans regard ourselves as being on top of that food chain, the obvious implication is that we are accumulating these toxins—and their byproducts, such as dioxin—in our bodies, where they have been associated with cancer, and with genetic and hormonal damage (Gaard, 2010; Oskamp, 2000). Farm workers have been routinely and negligently exposed to pesticides and other hazards, directly by being present when pesticides were sprayed on the crops, or by handling crops that had too recently been sprayed, or through a failure to implement adequate protective measures.

Weak regulation, lax enforcement, minimal penalties, and a low probability of lawsuits have historically failed to outweigh determination to minimize labor costs, divisions by class and race, and a visceral hatred of unions, allowing unsafe practices. A certain political and official indifference to occupational safety and health; a greater political, bureaucratic, and judicial commitment to employer than employee interests; and a tendency to blame health problems on individual workers, rather than to view them in a social or jobsite context, are longstanding problems, and not just in the agricultural industry. However, apparently even adequate sanitation facilities—toilets, soap, and water —have often been too much to ask for on behalf of farm workers (Antle & Capalbo, 1994; Brill, 1992; Frisvold, Mines, & Perloff, 1988; Gordon, 1999; Murphy-Greene, 2002; Murray, 1982; Quinlan, 1997; Smith, Lewandrowski, & Uri, 2000).

Some creatures lower on the food chain, including those the pesticides are meant to control, have a rapid reproduction cycle and have rapidly adapted to a succession of pesticides (Mellon & Rissler, 2003); Outwater argues that “total crop losses to insects are approximately what they were before pesticides began to be used” (p. 158). Moreover, chemical fertilizers do not replace organic materials, and as the latter are depleted, the soil compacts and needs ever heavier doses of fertilizer.

These fertilizers and pesticides join the other pollutants of modern society and flow into waterways, poisoning rivers, lakes, and coastal ecosystems, where they affect fish and other wildlife—including endangered and threatened species (Cohen, 2009; Fox, 2000; Oskamp, 2000; Smith, Lewandrowski, & Uri, 2000). In this context, Outwater cites the Cuyahoga River in Ohio as having become so clogged that it caught fire in 1969, “burning two railroad bridges in a toxic inferno of flames some 200 feet high” (p. 159). Bill McKibben (2007) reports that some agricultural communities in the developing world, which have been subject to “green revolution” propaganda that advocates genetically modified crops, fertilizers, and pesticides, have noted the ill effects and are refusing to use them.


Growing populations and incomes, along with changing food preferences, are rapidly increasing demand for livestock products, while globalization is boosting trade in livestock inputs and products. Global production of meat is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/01 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, and that of milk to grow from 580 to 1043 million tonnes. The environmental impact per unit of livestock production must be cut by half, just to avoid increasing the level of damage beyond its present level. (Livestock Environment and Development Initiative, 2006, p. xx)

In 2006, The Food and Agriculture Organization released a report entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow, which attributed a significant portion of the world’s problems with land degradation, water pollution, eutrophication (which depletes water-borne oxygen, creating “dead zones”), and greenhouse gas emissions to the increasingly industrialized livestock industry, an industry unfavorably reviewed by Michael Pollan (2007), and viewed in scathing terms by animal rights activists for inhumane practices. This inhumanity extends not only to the animals being slaughtered (Bittman, March 13, 2012), but to poorly paid slaughterhouse workers (Grezo, November 20, 2012), who may take out their frustrations on the doomed animals (Singer & Dawn, July 25, 2004), in a connection not overlooked by vegetarian ecofeminists who connect oppression of animals with domination of nature and oppressive practices against humans (Adams, 1991; Denys, 2011; Gaard, 2002; Gillespie, 2011; Glass, 2011; Lucas, 2005).

Corporate hog farms are some of the most egregious perpetrators of environmental racism. These hog farms create tremendous amounts of animal wastes. Factory-farm operations throughout North America have millions of gallons of liquefied animal feces stored in open lagoons that emit more than 400 different volatile, dangerous compounds into the atmosphere. These ”sewerless cities” generate so much surplus manure that it cannot be stored or disposed of safely. Some large hog farms produce volumes of untreated hog manure equivalent to the human waste of a city of 360,000 people. One hog farming operation in North Carolina carelessly allowed tons of untreated wastes to leach into groundwater sources. During a severe storm, the wastes ran off into rivers and killed wildlife and contaminated drinking water sources. The community affected was predominantly African American. (Bullard, Mohai, Saha, & Wright, March, 2007).

In terms of sustainability, the livestock industry’s impacts might be described as those of crop farming on steroids, which might at first blush seem to be figurative hyperbole, but can be understood literally as an understatement, since hormones (including steroids) and antibiotics are routinely administered to cattle, and from there find their way, along with other agricultural waste, into streams and rivers, and, even as the land needed for industrialized operations decreases, more is needed to raise grain, which rather than feeding humans—indeed the corn raised for this purpose is unpalatable for humans—goes to feeding cattle who would be healthier eating grass. It seems that a great many veterinarians would be unemployed if not for these practices (Pollan, 2007).

Meat is a massively inefficient way of feeding humans, and while some pasture land used for livestock is not suitable (arable) for crops, the FAO report notes that “[i]n all, livestock production accounts for 70 percent of all agricultural land and 30 percent of the land surface of the planet” (Livestock Environment and Development Initiative, 2006, p. xxi), land which could, in some cases, otherwise revert to forest. Worse, as sectors of less developed countries prosper through economic globalization, richer people increase their meat consumption. In a world where people still go hungry, this is arguably a gross misallocation of resources (Fox, 2000). As the use of crop residues in feeding livestock declines and the use of grain increases, “[a]nimal products, both meat and dairy, in general require more resources and cause higher emissions than plant-based alternatives” (United Nations Environment Program, 2010, p. 79):

Producing 1 kg of animal protein requires about 100 times more water than producing 1 kg of grain protein (8). Livestock directly uses only 1.3% of the total water used in agriculture. However, when the water required for forage and grain production is included, the water requirements for livestock production dramatically increase. For example, producing 1 kg of fresh beef may require about 13 kg of grain and 30 kg of hay (17). This much forage and grain requires about 100 000 L of water to produce the 100 kg of hay, and 5400 L for the 4 kg of grain. On rangeland for forage production, more than 200 000 L of water are needed to produce 1 kg of beef (30). Animals vary in the amounts of water required for their production. In contrast to beef, 1 kg of broiler can be produced with about 2.3 kg of grain requiring approximately 3500 L of water. (Pimentel & Pimentel, 2003)

Owning Life: Genetically Modified Organisms

And another means for stealing the harvest from the people and from nature is this amazing invention of calling life itself an invention, the patenting of life. Suddenly, a harvest that originates from nature and from those who have evolved seeds, bred seeds and grown the crop, becomes property of a corporation. And the small farmers are treated as thieves when they save part of the harvest of their own crop for growing the next year’s crop. (Shiva, quoted in Scopacasa, March 6, 2004)

GMOs purportedly exist to solve a wide variety of problems faced by humans in industrializing the production of other—both plant and non-human animal—life forms. This has not always worked as intended, as at least some of 180,000 Indian farmers trapped by “Green Revolution” debt might, had they not committed suicide, attest (Roy, 2009). The corporations that develop such varieties fiercely insist upon intellectual property rights such that seeds produced by such crops may not be replanted. Vernon Hugh Bowman, an Indiana. farmer who had found what he thought was a loophole in these restrictions has appealed this to the Supreme Court, where it appears he did not receive a sympathetic hearing (Liptak, February 19, 2013).


A reading of conservative writings, as some conservatives will acknowledge, reveals that some other conservatives, who hold hierarchical dominance and property rights as essential, and who appear to be intellectually related to those who increasingly dominate the Supreme Court that heard Bowman’s case, also appear to have great difficulty in condemning human slavery as it historically existed in the United States. It is far from clear that Bowman would have more success even with a relatively liberal Court (Bailey, 2004; Berman, April 11, 2012; Kirk, 1985/2001; Liptak, February 19, 2013; Nash, 2006; Silver, March 29, 2012; Weaver, 1964/1995), but the claim of corporate intellectual property ownership over life should attract ethical interest. Manfred Davidmann (September 6, 1996) fears the possibility of a human-nonhuman animal hybrid who might be subject to slavery. It is perhaps too easy to see such a possibility as hyperbolic, and we can hope such an eventuality would not come to pass; indeed, science seems to be moving in the direction of recognizing cetaceans—dolphins and whales—as nonhuman persons entitled to rights (White, February 19, 2012). One might accordingly hope that if cetaceans can be accorded rights, so might any hybrid humans brought into a society that would likely view them—at least initially—as freaks.

There are also grounds for pessimism. The nostalgia held by Southern conservatives, we are to understand, for “leisure, hospitality, piety, good manners, the attachment to family and place, the philosophic habit of mind, the joy of contemplation, [and] the art of gracious living” and for “the ideal of the gentleman, which requires a concern for others before the self and the sacrifice of happiness to duty,” that is, a nostalgia held by some Southern whites for plantation life, has only, albeit unfortunately, been conflated with “the apology for slavery and segregation” (Malvasi, 2008, p. 108; see also Anderson, 2005). The southern rock band Lynard Skynyrd appeared to have accepted that the Confederate flag might not be a racially sensitive backdrop for their concerts (Terbush, September 22, 2012), but following an outcry from their “fans who've spent years or decades defending the flag as a non-racist evocation of Southern heritage or [as evoking] pride in what they see as a battle over states' rights, not slavery,” the band stated that they will continue to use it (Wilman, September 24, 2012).

This “Gospel civilization,” many believed, didn’t just permit slavery — it required it. Christians across the Confederacy were convinced that they were called not only to perpetuate slavery but also to “perfect” it. And they understood the Bible to provide clear moral guidelines on how to properly practice it. The Old Testament patriarchs owned slaves, Jewish law clearly assumed its permissibility and the Apostle Paul’s New Testament letters repeatedly compelled slaves to be obedient and loyal to their masters. Above all, as Southerners never tired of pointing out to their abolitionist foes, the Gospels fail to record any condemnation of the practice by Jesus Christ. (Bassett, April 27, 2012)

While Jon Wiener (January 2, 2013) sees Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as a somewhat successful tactic, inviting blacks to join the Union Army and help win the war, Lynard Skynard fans and Southern conservatives appear to be attaching a different meaning to the Confederate flag and to plantation life than many historians would accept (LaFantasie, December 19, 2010; Boyer, et al., 1998; Zinn, 2005). Given the discrepancy between historical record and the views of Southern apologists, the temptation for some in the Western world to think that slavery is well behind us may well amount to psychological denial that raises a fear that slavery cannot be so far behind us as we might wish to pretend. Certainly, the word, slavery, has not gone away:

Many Brazilian cattle farms use the old trick of debt bondage to trap workers. These young men are generally used to destroy areas of the rainforest that can then be used for cattle farming. In a chilling parallel to Smithfield Foods, some farms employ armed guards to watch over the workers and threaten to murder anyone who tries to escape these isolated hell-holes. (Grezo, November 20, 2012)

Ever since the federal government deprived them of their slaves, the Southern elite has sought to create the functional equivalent of slavery, by creating a low-wage work force stripped of bargaining power and voting rights. Until the civil rights revolution, the neo-Confederates did this on the economic side by creating unfree labor systems like tenant farming and the convict-lease system, as well as “right-to-work” laws to stifle unionization in their region.  Keeping welfare benefits low, and controlled by local elites, forces Southern workers to accept jobs on the terms offered by Southern employers.  On the political side, Dixie’s politicians used poll taxes and residency requirements to strip poor blacks and poor whites of the right to vote. (Lind, November 22, 2011)

In recent years, as it has suffered dismal sales reports and turmoil in management, Walmart has doubled down on its strategy of suppressing wages and benefits for its 2.1 million employees. This is evidenced all the way from Bangladeshi garment factories, which maintain working conditions that verge on slavery to meet Walmart’s rock-bottom procurement prices, to sales floors across the Americas, where managers are given increasingly narrow budgets to pay staff, who make an average of around $8 an hour and often have to rely on government-funded food and healthcare programs. (Woodman, January 4, 2012)

There is, I believe, a clear relationship between the rise of the prison-industrial-complex in the era of global capitalism and the persistence of structures in the punishment system that originated with slavery. I argue, for example, that the most compelling explanation for the routine continuation of capital punishment in the U.S.—which, in this respect, is alone among industrialized countries in the world—is the racism that links the death penalty to slavery. (Davis, 2005, p. 35)

The mandate on contemporary forms of slavery includes but is not limited to issues such as: debt bondage, serfdom, forced labour, child slavery, sexual slavery, forced or early marriages and the sale of wives. As a legally permitted labour system, traditional slavery has been abolished everywhere, but it has not been completely stamped out. There are still reports of slave markets. Even when abolished, slavery leaves traces. It can persist as a state of mind- among victims and their descendants and among the inheritors of those who practised it –long after it has formally ended. (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, n.d.)

Louis Masur (December 31, 2012), reviewing his consumer habits, “discovered that 60 slaves work for me — cutting the tropical wood for my furniture, harvesting the Central Asian cotton in my shirts or mining the African precious metals used in my electronics.” The list doubtless goes on, but to the extent that Masur is correct, each of nearly all of us in the West can be argued to have our own little plantation, by proxy perhaps, and perhaps with interchangeable humans, but a plantation nonetheless.

Animal rights advocates, who view animals as ethical persons entitled to rights, argue for those rights as a natural progression from the extension of rights to people of color and women. In this line of reasoning we cannot be so far away from, or at least we are still much too close to, slavery if in fact sentient nonhuman animals can be considered property (Best & Nocella II, 2004; Lucas, 2005). However, the case against the capitalist labor relations that are intrinsic to our social order is perhaps most apparent in the interest that capitalists and their crony politicians have in preserving desperation and ensuring widespread misery, even to the point of refusing the limited resources needed to end starvation, as a means of subduing workers, as a means of assuring them that they are infinitely replaceable by others even more desperate than themselves, as a means of inducing them to work for poverty wages at jobs that offer no dignity and little or no hope of advancement (Barnet & Cavanagh, 2005; Edin & Lein, 1997/2005; Kent, 2011; Sernau, 2006). Jeffrey Sachs (2005), arguing for sweatshops as an improvement on their workers’ previous conditions, reifies nostalgia for the plantations and exemplifies the prevailing paradigm that whether we adopt the term slavery or not, for far too many workers, employment is coercive and profoundly dehumanizing Arguing that economics is not a “zero-sum” game, Sachs exemplifies the economic system’s blindness to “external” costs to the environment and to society; and yet, among the elite, it appears that Sachs is one of a very few who actively advocate for reducing world hunger.

Limited Utility

Heedless of human claims to “own” life, nature carries on, as patented transgenic modifications appear to spread beyond the crops they are intended for. Some might argue, the Supreme Court notwithstanding, that such modifications should thus be considered in the same condition of potential ownership as wildlife and weeds—if they cannot be controlled, as a practical matter, they cannot be owned. Wild sunflowers appear to have acquired the genes meant to protect Bt-crop sunflowers from “moth-type herbivorous insects” and wild squash acquired genes meant to protect transgenic squash from viruses (Mellon & Rissler, 2003).

Regardless of consumer resistance and mixed results on the ground, development of transgenic varieties continues. Manfred Davidmann (September 6, 1996) lists such publicly known transgenic—in which genes from one organism are introduced into another organism—organisms as tomatoes with a flounder gene to protect against freezing, pigs with a rat gene “to increase their reproductive capacity,” salmon that “apparently grow quickly to something like 40 times their normal weight,” a bull with a human gene “to see if next-generation cows produce human milk proteins,” and transgenic wheat, maize, rennet, and rape-seed plants.

Since the time of that writing, genetic modifications have been “stacked” on top of each other and apparently interact with each other in ways that may not be expected. In arguing for the use of transgenic varieties, Guanming Shi, Jean-Paul Chavas, and Joseph Lauer (2013) relied principally on reduced yield risk—meaning less variability and more predictability—rather than increased yields for farmers. Comparing stacked hybrids with conventional hybrids, they found mostly reduced or statistically insignificant differences in mean yields, writing, “Yet, with the exception of the ECB trait [which did increase productivity], we were surprised not to find strongly positive transgenic yield effects” (p. 112).

The record is also mixed on the effectiveness of herbicide tolerant (HT) and pesticide tolerant (Bt) transgenic modifications that have proven popular with U.S. farmers. These outcomes suggest in part that those organizations which are developing these hybrids are not succeeding at developing single hybrids that will thrive across a wide variety of environmental conditions. Further, Bt and Ht crops may already be failing in a similar manner to herbicides and insecticides, as weeds and insects with short reproductive cycles rapidly evolve adaptations to genetic technology or to the pesticides which transgenic varieties tolerate. Similarly, papaya ringspot virus appears to be adapting to papaya engineered to resist it. Worse, green lacewings, predatory insects that feed on corn borers, “suffered a higher death rate and delayed development when fed European corn borers which had eaten Bt corn compared with lacewings fed borers given non-Bt corn” (Mellon & Rissler, 2003).


To all of the above, one must consider as well that in a food system that industrializes production (value is “added,” however nutritionally dubious, and profit derived from processing food) and redistributes it to supermarkets around the world, particularly in cities where few people have the opportunity to grow most of their own food, transportation will add to the impact on sustainability (Pollan, 2007).

For livestock, feed must be transported, animals are transported from location to location as they reach various stages of production, and then the carcasses must be taken to processing plants. Produce, such as bananas and coffee, may be shipped around the world. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and GMO seed must be transported. Finally, food is distributed ultimately to retail outlets and then taken away by consumers (Pollan, 2007).


Transportation, for now, at least, relies heavily on nonrenewable fossil fuels which contribute significantly to global warming. The earlier mentioned FAO report asserts, however, that livestock’s contribution to global warming outweighs that of the entire transportation sector (Livestock Environment and Development Initiative, 2006). McKibben (2007) accordingly argues for decentralized society not only on its own merits but because a lack of oil would make our present, highly centralized systems of social organization untenable. Some would say that his “peak oil” premise appears to be undermined by a new “golden age” of oil in the western hemisphere:

[W]hile many analysts and pundits joined in the premature celebration of the new “golden age,” few emphasized that it would rest almost entirely on the exploitation of “unconventional” petroleum resources -- shale oil, oil shale, Arctic oil, deep offshore oil, and tar sands (bitumen). As for conventional oil (petroleum substances that emerge from the ground in liquid form and can be extracted using familiar, standardized technology), no one doubts that it will continue its historic decline in North America.

The “unconventional” oil that is to liberate the U.S. and its neighbors from the unreliable producers of the Middle East involves substances too hard or viscous to be extracted using standard technology or embedded in forbidding locations that require highly specialized equipment for extraction.  Think of it as “tough oil.” (Klare, October 4, 2012)

Extracting these fossil fuels is riskier to health and the environment and requires considerably more energy, raising the climate footprint, than conventional sources, but it is claimed that the United States can be “energy independent” (Cantarow, May 20, 2012; Cockerham, February 28, 2013; Klare, October 4, 2012; Onishi, February 3, 2013). In his blog, Juan Cole (July 26, 2012), whose insights are generally most useful on Western interventions in the greater Middle East and North Africa, has argued that alternative energy sources—solar and wind power—will become so affordable in a few years that “fracking” will no longer be needed and will be judged an unsound investment. That Cole reaches this conclusion is understandable, for he is reflecting the ideology that undergirds our society (Clark & York, 2008; Oelschlaeger, 1991), an ideology elites hasten to assure us still holds true:

Although the ecological crisis has captured public attention, the dominant economic forces are attempting to seize the moment by assuring us that capital, technology, and the market can be employed so as to ward off any threats without a major transformation of society. For example, numerous technological solutions are proposed to remedy global climate change, including agrofuels, nuclear energy, and new coal plants that will capture and sequester carbon underground. The ecological crisis is thus presented as a technical problem that can be fixed within the current system, through better ingenuity, technological innovation, and the magic of the market. In this view, the economy will be increasingly dematerialized, reducing demands placed on nature.2 The market will ensure that new avenues of capital accumulation are created in the very process of dealing with environmental challenges. (Clark & York, 2008)

However, if Cole is right, he will have successfully judged against the weight of history, that technology can solve the problems which technology creates:

[T]he hopes put into technology and science do not find much support among scientists themselves, some of whom relegate both the source and the solution of the problem to the cultural sphere (Ludwig, Hillborn and Walters 1993). In fact, history shows that technological progress has always contributed to the scope and intensity of human impact on the environment. (Matutinovié, 2007, p. 1110)

Cole’s view—the conventional view—supports the status quo. We can only imagine the disorder that might result if Frank Fenner’s view that humans face extinction—due to population and climate change—within 100 years (Jones, June 16, 2010) were to find widespread acceptance. In such a contingency, the admitted failure of the elites to meaningfully address climate change (McDonald, June 24, 2012) might become an indictment of their fitness to rule.

Reckoning for agricultural costs

Michael Pollan (2007) advocates a system of rotating cattle and chickens through pasture, and returning compost to the soil for growing food, in an approach that rebuilds soil, combined with food from animals that are hunted, and more food that is gathered from the woods, what we might view as an artisanal meal, and contrasts it with the mass industrial process that yields, say, a McDonalds-style fast food meal. “The cost of the first meal is steep, yet it is acknowledged and paid for; by comparison the price of the second seems a bargain but fails to cover its true costs, charging it instead to nature, to the public health and purse, and to the future” (p. 410). In his conclusion, he effectively evades the issue of sustainability, claiming that both meals are “equally unreal and equally unsustainable.” He goes on to say that he “like[s] to be able to open a can of stock” and to focus on other things besides food, and where it comes from, and how it is produced, though the point of his entire book has been to inform us as where food comes from and how it is produced. This is similar to his acknowledgment of the merits of a vegan diet, to which his argument—which I, a vegan, must concede—essentially reduces to wanting to continue to share meals with friends and relations who are not vegan. In sum, the book does not offer a course to a more sustainable future and—after an entire work which largely celebrates a thoughtful meal—dismisses the efforts of those who do seek a more sustainable future, who do seek to put ideals into practice. The book is, rather, an endorsement of the status quo, but a status quo for those who can afford it and who have access to it, and it is oblivious to the problems of a “food desert” to be found in many poor neighborhoods (Freeman, 2007) and to the problems of the far too many people around the world who, in part because capitalists prefer a world of desperate potential workers who will work for less money under more abysmal conditions, live with food insecurity and inadequate food (Kent, 2011). Pollan does, however, raise the problem which echoes throughout this discussion: It is one thing for Bodley (2008) to contrast a sustainable society characterized by often widely scattered small populations with an unsustainable society increasingly characterized by high density cities. It is another problem entirely—and one for which I have yet to find an adequate solution—to take high density cities filled with people who, in many cases, like living in cities that now exist and to make those cities sustainable.

Conclusion: The Economy

In this essay, I have pointed to the sheer size of the human population on earth as unsustainable, and described how feeding all of us humans in the way that we do is itself unsustainable. In the course of describing agriculture, I inevitably touched upon other aspects of unsustainability. Housing—the need for shelter—for instance, is implicated with deforestation, the clearing of land for agriculture, as wood is used to build homes. Water is involved at nearly every stage of agriculture, as a requirement for plants and animals, as a carrier of nutrients, as a carrier of salts, and as a carrier of pollutants. Clothing can be made from agricultural products, that is, cotton or wool, or artificial fibers, which may be derived from fossil fuels. Air is impacted by dust (we might say nutrients for plants) carried by the wind, as well as by fossil fuels. Energy is needed not only for transport, implicating fossil fuels, but to operate irrigation pumps, tractors, and other farm equipment. Commercial society is, in its entirety, a new system—roughly only ten thousand years old, and even more so since the Industrial Revolution, the time since being a blink of the eye in the span of human existence—but one in which the feedbacks are positive (destabilizing), rather than negative (stabilizing). It threatens the very system—an ecosystem—we rely upon to live, that is, it threatens our very survival (McCally, 2000).

A reason that agriculture developed the way it did was that not all of us are now engaged in food production; we have an economic system that enables most of us to specialize—hopefully, but not always, according to our talents and inclinations—and to exchange goods and services. But the nature of any economic system of exchange is that it privileges those who have the greater ability to say no and handicaps those who have the lesser ability to say no. Further, this privilege and this handicap are cumulative—a positive feedback that widens social inequality, producing “winners” and “losers” (Kent, 2011; Muller, March/April, 2013; Weber, 1978/2010).

The economic “winners” have banded together with their counterparts in government and in the military (Mills, 1956/2010), now on an international scale (Benfell, January 2, 2013), as western governments impose neoliberal policies through such organs as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (Kent, 2011; Sachs, 2005; Stiglitz, 2007), and as their militaries ally to enforce that order and to combat resistance to it in the guises of 1) a “war on terror” that is largely about a defense of Israel (Benfell, March 9, 2010) and 2) “national security” that is largely about preserving access to—some might say, enabling corporate exploitation of—fossil fuels. They act this way in defense of their own interests, but against human survival.

It is difficult to say that it could have been any other way. Surveying the evidence, Burroughs (2008) believes that it was climate change—the change from the Paleolithic to the Holocene, roughly aligning with the dawn of the Neolithic—that led many humans to forsake the hunter-gatherer way of life. Climate now threatens us again. Burroughs, hoping to learn from climate change in the past to discuss the future, writes that we face not only higher temperatures but greater climate variability. We likely see some of that already in the extreme weather of recent years (Borenstein, July 3, 2012; Henson, 2008; Pearce, 2007). As our system of social organization changed with the Neolithic, it likely needs to change again, this time with a vastly larger population.


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