Resistance Radio: Lierre Keith on Agriculture, Part 2

Editor’s note: This is an edited transcript of Derrick Jensen’s December 8, 2013 Resistance Radio interview with Lierre Keith.  You can read Part 1 here.

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Jensen:  Let’s just use an example of the local Tolowa Indians, who lived here for at least 12,500 years. Their lifestyle was based—their food, a lot of their caloric input, came from salmon. If they ate all the salmon, if they killed off the salmon somehow, then that means they would have to conquer someone else, or starve to death, right? Is that basically what you’re saying?

Keith: Yes. Or take the example of, it doesn’t even matter, any civilization. They’re generally going to be based on one of seven or eight crops—corn or wheat or barley or whatever. Every year there’s less and less of it because every year the soil is more and more degraded, there’s more salinization taking place, more salt, literally, in the soil. You will see this throughout history where both the archaeological record of things like the strata that they can just dig through, and then what’s actually in the cooking pots, and then if there are written records of history, you can see how one crop shrinks and shrinks and shrinks, so they try another one that’s more salt-hardy, and eventually that will collapse too. You even have written descriptions of how the surface of the land is glistening white with salt, and “What are we going to do?” They destroyed their land, doing agriculture.

You can pick your power center, but it’s always the same process. You’re using up what you’ve got, and in this process you’re also destroying the rivers and you’re pulling down more trees, and of course you need all those things to survive. Your population is too high to survive on what’s there.

That’s the problem with cities. Eight million people cannot live sustainably on the island called Manhattan. It just can’t be done. Resources have to come from somewhere else, the food, the water, the energy. And the problem is that nobody willingly gives up those things.

The people who live in the watershed next to you, they don’t want to give you what they need. Why would they willingly just die so you can have their trees, their water and their fish? They’re not going to do that. So you’re going to come into conflict. This is why agricultural societies end up militarized. And they do, always.

It doesn’t matter what beautiful, peaceful values those people might hold in their hearts. It doesn’t matter—their lovely art, their music, their paintings, their frescoes, what religion they might be—it doesn’t matter, materially speaking. They have used up their resources. They will starve to death without food. They’re going to have to go out and get it from somewhere else.

J: It’s a functional problem.

K: That’s why it always ends up militarized. That’s one big reason. Another reason is, as you mentioned, human slavery. This is backbreaking labor. Hunter-gatherers tend to work maybe 15 or 20 hours a week to provide for their basic resources, and the rest of the time they do spiritual activities, art, naps apparently are very important, and also gossip. So that’s what they love to do, and they’ve got a lot of free time to do it.

You can contrast that with farmers: it’s just neverending, from dawn to dusk. For anyone to have leisure time in an agricultural society, they have to have slaves. To put a real number on it, by the year 1800—a lot of people demarcate that as the beginning of the fossil fuel age—fully three-quarters of the human beings alive on this planet, three-quarters of them, were living in some form of slavery, indenture, or serfdom. That’s what it requires.

J: It was mainly agricultural, right?

K: Yes. We’ve forgotten how much work is involved because we’ve been using machines now to do that work. I can guarantee that when the fossil fuel runs out, we’re going to remember exactly what kind of work this is.

Once you have that number of the population living in slavery, you need someone to keep them there, and those people are called soldiers. When they go out into the hinterlands, into the colonies, to get those resources that everybody now needs, one of those resources is always going to be other human beings.

We talk about Athens, the great birthplace of modern democracy. Ninety percent of the population of Athens were slaves. That carries through until the year 1800. So that’s number two, slavery.

The other problem with agriculture is it creates a surplus. That’s how the whole thing keeps going. You have to make enough so that you have some surplus. Hunter-gatherers can just move on a little bit and there’s more food to eat, but with the agriculturalists, of course, starvation is always one season away, so there’s always this surplus. The thing is, if you can store it, you can steal it, so you always have to have somebody to guard the food stores. And again, those people are called soldiers.

J: In the first cities—I learned this from Lewis Mumford—the first cities did not have walls around the outside to protect them from so-called raiders. They actually had walls around the granary to make sure that the king was able to keep control of the food supplies because it was only through keeping control of the food supplies that he was able to keep control of the labor force.

K: Yes, so you see this makes a really vicious little circle. Another point to keep in mind is if you can picture one of those great big naval ships that the British Navy or whoever used to conquer various colonies, it can take 600 old-growth trees just to make one of those ships.

War is really resource-intensive. And it ends. A lot of things you might produce create value in this society, and the value can keep either building or at least transferring, but with things that revolve around war, it just dead-ends right there because it’s only got one purpose. And when it’s over, everybody’s dead and that’s sort of the end of it.

Those ships—entire forests of the world were pulled down to make ships just for war. And this is true everywhere. It’s not just the British Navy. It’s all of them. That’s what was required to build those great big fighting vessels.

So you’ve destroyed your forest to live in this energy-intensive way, and you’ve poured a whole bunch of resources particularly into your military, not in defeating people but into the military, and now around again in the vicious circle, you have to go out and conquer the people living in the region next to you so you can take their forest to make more ships to conquer more people.

This is the temporary advantage that agricultural societies have. Because they’re willing to destroy their forests, they can build these great big ships. They can do all this smelting of iron and make these incredible weapons, which are a lot harder than just wooden spears. So they’ve got this superior military force because it’s all draw-down.

Then you’re stuck in this position where you then have to conquer. You have to use that military to go out and get more resources because you’ve used up yours. But it gives you that temporary advantage over the people who aren’t willing to destroy their forests.

If you’re the people who aren’t willing, now you’re really stuck between a rock and a hard place. You either become militaristic and devote your forest to making an army—you kill your land—or you stand on principle and you’re killed and they take it. This is why war spreads. The gentle, peaceful matrilineal people that we all love to romanticize, and in our dreams that’s where we go, this is what happens. This is what they’re up against every time.

It’s a double bind. There’s not really any way out, and that’s why we’re in the state we’re in.

J: Since the problems are functional, as opposed to just something we can change by being nicer people, why are you telling us this? That’s one question. Another question is what do you want people to do with this information?

K: The reason I’m telling everybody is because I want to be hated. [Pause.] That’s supposed to be a joke.

The reason I’m telling everybody is because I feel like the people who care the most—and by that I mean radical environmentalists, radical feminists, people who are profoundly committed to the planet, to justice, to a better way—by and large do not understand the depth of the problem. And if we don’t address the actual problem, we’re never going to come up with solutions. That seems kind of obvious.

Even people who’ve dedicated their lives to these issues don’t understand that it all goes back to agriculture, that that’s the original activity that started us down this path of destruction. That’s the primary destruction. Eventually, global warming will outweigh that, but to date, it’s still the most destructive thing that people have done to the planet. Because that’s what it is. It’s not like agriculture on a bad day, agriculture done really badly. No, this is what it is. You pull down the forest. You rip up the prairie. You destroy those biotic communities, and you replace them with this monocrop for humans, for as long as it will last. That’s the problem.

Then once you start doing that, you’re stuck with this militaristic cycle because you’ve got to keep doing it again and again. When you’ve destroyed your own, you have to go out and get someone else’s. Militarism isn’t just, “Oh gosh, we happen to be warlike. We have a bad story in a book we consider holy. We’d better tell new stories.” I’m a writer. I’m all for new stories, but that’s not going to change this.

The problem is we have a way of life based on draw-down. Materially speaking, we’ve used it all up. And we need to face that. That’s why I’m trying to get people to understand this. It’s not because I actually want them to hate me although a lot of them end up hating me. I guess that’s just the way it goes when you go up against people’s beliefs.

We really have to get the basic wound that’s been done, the basic damage. This has got to be at the forefront of our consciousness as activists and environmentalists and feminists. We’re never going to be able to face it otherwise.

J: I want to comment on the whole hating you thing. What you’re saying is not actually new. Basically, every generation, there have been a number of people who say agriculture is destructive—can you just list a few of the people who have talked about this? There’s Jared Diamond and Richard Manning with Against the Grain, and how about Edward Hyams? Talk about a few of those precedents.

K: What you’re saying is absolutely right. Every generation there’s somebody who says the same thing, and you can go all the way back to ancient Greece to some of the earliest written texts that we have anywhere in the world, and you’ve got Plato, Socrates and Aristotle all mentioning the fact that the world was being destroyed, that the rivers were being flooded with this mud and silt, and so there were no more fish, and all the soil was washing down off the mountains.

In fact, some of the ports of the ancient Roman Empire had to be moved ten kilometers—ten kilometers—because so much silt ran off the mountains and clogged the harbors that they kept having to move, just literally move the cities, to a new spot where the ships could actually dock. This was all commented on. They knew what they were doing. It’s just that nobody knew how to stop it.

Then you have people like George Hill in the nineteenth century, then Edward Hyams in 1930, 1940, and more recently, you have David Montgomery and his book Soil, which is absolutely fabulous. Jared Diamond basically won a Pulitzer Prize for saying more or less the same thing. Richard Manning has this great quote that I love. I’d like to read this. It’s just a few sentences:

“No biologist or anyone else for that matter could design a system of regulations that would make agriculture sustainable. Sustainable agriculture is an oxymoron. It mostly relies on an unnatural system of annual grasses grown in a monoculture, a system that nature does not sustain or even recognize as a natural system. We sustain it with plows, petrochemicals, fences, and subsidies because there is no other way to sustain it.”

That’s it right there. It’s a war against the natural world.

No, I have nothing to say that’s particularly original. I think I put it together in my own way, but none of this is new information. It’s not getting to the people who care the most, and that’s why I feel impassioned about this.

J: So what do you want people to do on two levels, both the personal level and the social level?

K: I think that the social level is heads and shoulders, far and way above, way more important than anything that anybody can do in their personal lives. And I really want to emphasize that, because there are no personal solutions to political problems, and we should know that.

The problem is that a lot of the environmental movement—we’ve kind of been sold this idea that if we just make different consumer choices, we can somehow buy our way out of these massive, global political problems. We can’t. There’s no set of things you can buy that’s going to make a damn bit of difference on any of this. This is not a problem that you can address in your personal life and really have that make anything but a nano-difference. These are really just horrendous systems of power that we are going to have to challenge.

J: Can you say what you were going to say, but in addition can you give a three-minute liberal/radical distinction? Is that possible?

K: There are two main differences between liberals and radicals. The first is that liberals are idealist, and what that means is that liberals tend to think that social reality is an idea. It’s a mental event. And therefore, the way to make social change is education. You change people’s minds. And social change happens because people have some kind of consciousness transformation, or a personal epiphany, or even a spiritual revelation, but that’s how social change happens. It’s one by one and it’s through education or rational argument because it’s a rational problem, right? It’s just a mental event.

J: If we recognize that agriculture is destructive, then we’ll stop it.

K: Yes. Somehow if we just get the information to people, it will somehow just happen. It’s very different on the radical side because radicals think that material conditions are primary, that society is not made up of ideas, it’s made up of material conditions and material institutions that create those conditions. The way you change things is by taking power away from the powerful and redistributing that to the dispossessed. That involves struggle.

Down the line, you have to make decisions how you’re going to wage such struggle, whether it’s violent or nonviolent. All that is really important, and often very ethically grueling to come to grips with, but that’s a much later discussion.

The thing to recognize is this requires force. It’s not a misunderstanding. It’s not a mistake. The powerful aren’t there because the rest of us aren’t educated. They’re there because they have power, and they’re not going to give it up willingly.

You need to use some level of force, whether that’s nonviolent, whether it’s boycotts, whether it’s sit-ins—there are plenty of nonviolent ways that have worked, so it’s not about violence and nonviolence.

It’s simply to recognize that this is not a mistake or a misunderstanding because it’s not a mental event. It’s about material systems of power that have got to be changed, that have to be confronted and brought down. That’s idealism versus materialism.

The other big difference between liberals and radicals is the basic social unit. For liberals it’s always the individual. The individual is sacrosanct. It’s always the individual against society. And again, this leaves you with a strategy of sort of one on one. You’re going to change people one by one, and that’s how you change society.

For radicals, again, this is totally different. We understand that society is actually made of groups of people—so it’s always a class condition, whether it’s economic class, whether it’s a sex caste system of gender, whether it’s a racial caste system. These are groups of people, and some of those groups have power over other groups.

So it’s not about you as an individual. The bad things that happen to me aren’t because my name is Lierre and I have blue eyes and I like reading. The bad things that happen to me are because I’m a woman, because of the different class positions that I hold. Those are the things that happen to people who are in my position. Nothing to do with me as an individual.

Social change happens when the dispossessed come together and make common cause. The solution is really written into the problem. Groups of people have power, but the dispossessed can come together and fight for themselves to change that. There’s always hope in that condition.

That’s the difference between liberals and radicals, and the problem with a lot of the environmentalists of course is that they’ve completely taken up this liberalism. So it’s only going to change by education, and you’re only going to do it one on one. What has dropped out completely from of the conversation is that there are people in power, they’re making money, they control armies, and they’re in control of things like Exxon/Mobil. They are gutting the planet for their personal profit. They’ve got names and addresses, as Utah Phillips very famously said. We know where they live, and we can see how their power is organized.

Our job is to take that apart. It’s to take down those institutions in whatever way we can and redistribute the power so that we all have some say in the material conditions of our lives.

What do I want people to do? In really broad strokes I actually think that there’s still a lot of hope because the things that we need to do to solve these problems are actually things that we should be doing anyway if we care about justice. To get justice for people is also the only way we’re going to save this planet. It’s not human race vs. planet. I think it gets set up that way in people’s minds. It’s not. It’s actually quite the opposite.

So, to get down to brass tacks, the number one thing you can do to drop the birth rate is teach a girl to read. That’s a really profound statement. When women have even that much more power over their lives, it means they have a little more control over the uses to which men put our bodies, and that’s sexually, reproductively, economically. The number one thing that drops the birth rate across the globe is teaching a girl to read. And we should care about that because we care about girls.

As it turns out, it’s one of the main things we’re going to have to do to save the planet. Right now somewhere between one-half and two-thirds of all children that are born are either unplanned or unwanted. All we have to do is give women control over their bodies and the birth rate drops. That’s happened in 32 countries. We now have negative or zero population growth in 32 countries. This is not the human rights horrors of China or places like that where they’ve instituted these draconian and misogynist laws. This is simply giving women power over their lives. And that’s what happens when women have a little education and a little bit of power, over and over.

The number one thing that we have to do is empower girls, and that means confronting a system of power that’s called patriarchy. We’re all going to have to be feminists. Gosh, what a shame.

The other thing that drops the birth rate is when you increase people’s standard of living. People end up having lots of children when they’re very, very poor. So if you raise the standard of living, the birth rate drops, very quickly in fact. Often in a generation you can see this happen.

The reason that people are poor is not because they’re stupid. It’s because the rich are stealing from them. And that is a global system called capitalism. So we’re going to have to be against capitalism, and we’re going to have to do something about patriarchy. That is the only way that we’re going to save this planet.

Again, it’s not humans vs. planet earth. If you care about human rights, that is the only thing that’s really going to save this situation.

My goal is, over the next two or three generations, we could very easily, by simply caring about women and girls and giving them some rights over their lives, some decision-making power, we could drop the birth rate dramatically and then we could let the planet repair. We could be part of that repair. It’s actually not that hard, because the grasses and the forests want to come back. If we simply get out of the way, they will.

I’ll end with one final bit of information, and that’s really about grasslands. If we were to take 80 percent of the trashed out grasslands around the planet, which have been destroyed by agriculture and return them to the grasslands that they would like to be, within 15 years we could sequester all of the carbon that’s been released since the beginning of the Industrial Age. We could stop global warming in its tracks.

Grasslands of the Flint Hills in Kansas. ©Jim Richardson

Because it’s not us doing it. It’s the plants that are doing it. It’s those incredible grasses that would do it for us. Because life wants to live. And they will do that. The one thing they are really good at is building soil. That’s what prairies do. The basic component of soil is carbon, so they’ll suck it out of the air and they’ll store it once more in the ground, and that could be the end of global warming.

But we’ve got to stop being these monsters and destroyers. A lot of times people make this argument that this is human nature. My response is that it’s not. We were on this planet for over two million years and we didn’t destroy anything. In fact, you can look at the first art that we ever made, and to me it’s a celebration. You have the mega-fauna and the mega-females. Those were our first art projects, these giant animals and these giant women. To me that says that in our bodies, in our brains, in our bones, we have that awe and that thanksgiving, that we were trying to say thank you for our lives and for our homes, and so that was what we celebrated.

I don’t think it’s that far from us still. I think we could repair this planet and remember how to participate rather than dominate.

One thought on “Resistance Radio: Lierre Keith on Agriculture, Part 2”

  1. Hard truths. Good to see someone openly discussing the link between slavery, growth, and material benefit that we enjoy. Consumerism has us all – we buy and sell, yet hold onto our liberal dreams. I just wonder if invest less in our own comfort this will see the birthrate fall – because we see kids as just another resource we are owed?

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