Right after high school graduation my friend Emily and I took a road trip to Taos, New Mexico. We were on our way to a friend’s bed and breakfast to stay and enjoy the desert sun before facing the rest of our lives. We stopped at the Rio Grand Gorge Bridge and, as we left the car to admire the gorge, a homeless man pushed a cart across the bridge, gestured toward us and, from under a beard and baseball cap, called us “supermarket girls.” I grew up working for the family gardening business and, having grown many of my own vegetables and plants, I resented his comment and thought, “I am NOT a supermarket girl!” Although hardly the type of comment to raise one’s defenses, I have never forgotten his words. For some reason, that phrase has taken on new meaning over the years.
What was this man commenting on? He was, perhaps, pointing to some truth about where Emily and I were coming from, and what kind of life we had presumably led. Along our road trip in Colorado and New Mexico, Emily and I came face to face with expressions of our national agricultural production in the West: vast irrigation systems, dams, highways, satellite towns propped up by a fossil fuel economy, and drought-prone landscapes heavily irrigated or roamed by cattle. Indeed, despite both of our families’ humble origins, Emily and I were accustomed to going to the grocery store and unquestioningly buying produce for our families without any conception of how the system really functioned. So maybe we were, in a way, “supermarket girls.” I have never been comfortable with the phrase and am now exploring the implications of being part of a “supermarket society.” Of course, beneath the supermarket façade is the story behind the polished apples, shiny peppers, and perfect potatoes—this story is as illuminating as it is alarming. The tons of topsoil rushing downriver, the nationwide bee colony collapse, the already vanished forms of plant and animal life call for a better way or, as Thomas Berry calls it, the “Great Work.”
In his February 12 talk, “Creating a New Food Future,” Andrew Kimbrell highlighted the ways in which industrial agriculture exhausts our soils, imperils our pollinators (the critical key to fertility), and eradicates our rich history in seed biodiversity. We are now reckoning with a system that undercuts the very foundations upon which it rests. The specter of drought across the West reveals the unfortunate fact that our water law is based on data from an unusual wet spell. Now climate change will likely reduce the Colorado River’s flow even further, the source of all that is green in much of the West and Southwest, leaving regional planners and farmers clamoring for solutions. The current water crisis in California and the likely reality of a long-term drought, points to the need to re-align our agricultural regime.
The water crisis that threatens agriculture in states like California, Arizona, and Colorado is but one of many problems embedded in an agricultural system that exhausts farmland and natural resources without replenishing them. This system, as Kimbrell reminds us, is completely unregenerative and the consumers’ “supermarket vision,” or disconnection with their own food sources, is one of its symptoms.
According to Kimbrell, as we begin to realize the vulnerability and danger involved in industrial agriculture, we should see the organic movement in the United States as the starting point, our conceptual baseline from which a greater transformation of American agriculture can occur. That is, the organic movement cannot, by itself, solve all of the problems associated with the food system as it is, but it is a worthy and necessary launch pad. Part of this change is certainly related to policy, technology, and consumer habits, to name a few, but it also has to do with the way that Americans view nature.
Many social scientists have long examined American attitudes towards nature. Thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, Lynn White Jr., and Thomas Berry have all observed and decried a disjointed and extractive relationship with the natural world. This, in turn, shapes the manner in which we use nature for sustenance. Historically, westerners have understood nature to be a wilderness in need of taming, unsanitary and dangerous, or a static source of goods that exist to serve humankind. People have paid too little attention the long-term effects and viability of monocropping, mass chemical and pesticide use, or cotton farming in the desert. The industrial form of agriculture and of modern life has devastated the healthy functioning of ecosystems around the globe and academics have anticipated the need not only for economic and legal change but for a far more fundamental change in perception. The historian Thomas Berry has referred to the next significant human movement as the “Great Work,” or the “transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner” (The Great Work: Our Way into the Future). Berry asserts that we must begin to recognize and reclaim our responsibility not as commanders and takers of natural resources but as members in a community that we depend on and depends on us. Americans have little sense of reciprocity between nature and their communities, and this is borne out in exhaustive forms of modern agriculture.
Perhaps, to some this may sound either bizarre or unrealistic, but the evidential need for a change in attitudes is compelling. We are losing topsoil up to forty times faster than the land is regenerating it, we continue to massively overdraw 20 percent of the world’s aquifers, we’ve already lost 75 percent of crop biodiversity, and we’ve seen a 50-percent decline in pollinator populations in a single year. We must consider the underlying reasons for this trend.
Values, it would seem, are as much of our common heritage as the land. The Great Work that Berry articulates so clearly, and which others like Rachel Carson, have made movements toward, expand our cultural view to recognize that "in reality there is a single integral community of the Earth that includes all its component members whether human or other than human” (The Great Work: Our Way into the Future). Our intellectual, emotional, and economic capacity for a sense of relatedness will be a central component in our response to a faltering food system and as we learn more about our launching pad, the organic movement. Kimbrell’s talk was practical and illuminating as he highlighted both the promise and limitations of the organic movement in confronting industrial agriculture—it cannot solve everything—but it is our first step out of the trench we’ve collectively dug.
A recording of Andrew Kimbrell’s webinar, “Creating a New Food Future,” is available at https://vimeo.com/87359019