Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

Issue No. 59
Fall 1997

Land Report #59

Economics and Self-Sufficiency

BY Wes Jackson

On March 13, 1997, the regional newspaper of north central Kansas, the Salina Journal, published a story from Kurilovo, Russia, entitled “Russian Workers Cope as Best They Can” by Sarah Mae Brown of the Associated Press. The story begins by describing how “each day, Nikolai and Galya Nikolinko arise in the dark and go about the business of making a living. They milk their cows, feed their pig, gather eggs from their chickens, tend their garden. They live off what they grow and sell the rest for a few rubles here and there. From milk alone, they earn perhaps $100 a month. And when the sun rises, Nikolai heads off from his simple wooden house to his long-time job as a welder in a state-run auto repair factory. For this, he earns nothing.”

The article continues, “People survive on their gardens and their wits, and the official economy primarily is a distraction.” After some mention of an impending trade union strike and President Boris Yeltsin’s concern about doing something about it the writer says more: “Across Russia, especially in smaller towns and villages, millions of workers have gone months without wages. Both the government and private employers have been unable — or unwilling — to pay them. Even retirees have gone without their pensions. Outsiders tend to ask how this is possible: How can a nation survive when its people are unpaid? Why would a worker show up for a job that offers no wages? Like many Russians, Nikolai Nikolinko — who hasn’t been paid in three months — doesn’t ask these questions. Why wouldn’t he show up for work? ‘Where would I go?’ he said. ‘There aren’t any other jobs in this town. I’m too old to look for work in Moscow. This is a one-factory town; we have no other choices. And besides, what if the day I decide not to show up the managers start handing out wages?”

Note that it is the outsiders who ask how these millions of people get by without money income. But an additional message that doesn’t get mentioned in the article is that nature’s economy in combination with traditional culture continues to feed the people and sustain the industrial economy.

Imagine nearly anyone but the Amish going with no wages in the United States for three months now that our traditional rural economies have been mostly undone. The collapse of the Soviet empire represents the first major failure of the industrial mind. We should more or less ignore the differences between capitalism and the Soviet brand of communism here, for both systems have sought to concentrate power and in so doing greatly reduce the number of people on the land and in small communities.

Two important messages come through to me, at least, messages of what we need to do here at home to prevent the eventual likelihood of widespread social upheaval. First off, we need to aggressively consider ways to keep people on the land and in the small towns who are already there, and secondly, we need to imagine and implement ways to get some people back onto the land and into more traditional relationships with sun, soil, and rural community. We don’t have to junk every accouterment of the technological era, but during times of food crisis history has shown that no one is safe whether they have food, grow food, or not.

Cultural arrangements of a diverse nature will ensure our security. Industrialized pig or chicken factories will not. Whether we are talking about the huge feedlot beef facilities or a Central Valley of California-style of agribusiness to provide us our vegetables, both are brittle forms of food production. This has all been said before in many ways, and at a time of a rising stock market it is easy to deny that anything can or will go wrong with our production system, however well motivated workers may be or however reliable machinery may be.

An analogy comes to mind. Mathematicians and computer wizards at places like the Santa Fe Institute are at work these days on “sand pile dynamics.” The elementary model involves a steady stream of sand being poured downward to form a cone. As grain after grain slips onto the pile, nothing dramatic happens other than the cone becomes larger. At some point, however, a grain of sand will trip a cascade. Which grain it will be is unpredictable. Which grains will be caught in the cascade is also unpredictable, but that a cascade will happen is certain.

Biologists, economists, physicists and others have explored the various biological, social, and physical problems of the modern world using the sand pile dynamics model. Whether it is the application of farm chemicals to our land and water, cutting of the tropical rain forest, or overhauling the architecture of the genomes of our major crops and livestock by introducing genes from long evolutionary distances, we are seeing everywhere that the resilience of nature is not infinite, that cultural stability is fragile, and that the small cascades of the past become predictors for the future.

Meanwhile, we tend to ignore where true resilience lies. The Siberian welder and his family with his garden, pig, and chickens have more to say about a sustainable future than anything the web has to offer. This is not an argument that we should empty our cities but rather that we do get more people back on the land in small places, the small communities, and that essentially everyone in the cities be respectful of, if not connected to, one or more farmer in the local countryside. In our educational efforts of the young it is an argument for teaching the basics about our source. By that I don’t mean microeconomics but rather important processes like photosynthesis and the energetics of material recycling.

The Russian couple may not be literate on the Internet or even about the chemistry of photosynthesis, but they are connected to source. It is ironic that it was the inefficiencies of communism relative to Western capitalism which kept them from undercutting the basis of their current existence.

I have learned to mistrust the too tidy story, even my own. There is probably an important ingredient left out by the AP reporter. Perhaps there is a small subsidy that comes from the government in the form of a chit or free staples. Even if that is the case, true resilience or security is dependent upon close connection to a land and culture-based source.

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