Chapter 5

Building
a resilient world

As the climate changes over the course of the coming century—and beyond—drought is rapidly becoming one of the world’s primary concerns. But drought has always presented a social, economic and ecological challenge to societies around the world. The lessons that history teaches us makes one thing quite clear: the effects of droughts are worse when people impose systems onto landscapes unable to support them naturally. On the other hand, history also teaches us that systems that are designed for resiliency suffer less and spring back faster. It’s time to find a way forward. 

Background: A member of the Rural Women’s Faremers Association of Ghana preserves corn for next year’s seeds. Photo Credit: Global Justice Now (Used under Creative Commons license).

The choices we can make

As we have seen, our decisions around land development and agriculture are often driven principally by the pressure for corporations to maximize shareholder dividends. Short-term technological fixes keep lands profitable—even if those lands are no longer able to be productive without serious human intervention. To keep the system going, vast amounts of water are diverted, soil is worn out, workers are uprooted and little planning is done to develop long-lasting, resilient communities and food supplies. We have made biology subordinate to the economy.

Many people would argue that this system has worked and will keep working indefinitely. But our changing climate has added a great deal of uncertainty to the formula. Systems like the one we currently have—a system which rewards companies when they are able to make others pay for the environmental and social costs of production—may be reaching their limits.

What are our options for agriculture? This is a question that intimidates a lot of people—and understandably so. We live within the system we have. We rely on it every day. For the most part, we participate in it as end consumers, not as producers, so many of its functions are entirely invisible to us. So, having a discussion about how to replace the system with a stronger alternative can be puzzling at first. The system that we have feels so natural that we mistake something that’s well-established for something that’s working.

But systems—even well-established ones—are designed. They are created. Systems—even for things as fundamental as food and water—are essentially a series of choices made by people. So while the systems we have now may feel like permanent fixtures in human life, it’s important to remember that they aren’t.

From individuals to nations, people have a right to self-determination. And part of self-determination means having and exercising the power to design systems that work best for your own situation. This power is at the core of both political independence and economic self-reliance.

Integrating the natural cycle
into the economic cycle

Agroecology is the system that pays close attention to how the natural world operates and then replicates those systems for human use. Nature has had millions and millions and millions of years to figure out which plants and animals work well together, which crops want to grow in what climates, and which traits each landscape needs to thrive under an array of conditions from drought to freezing. Nature is basically the best research and development department we have available. Agroecology is simply the idea that we should use it.

For about a century, people have been attempting to impose a business onto the land rather than creating a business out of the land. Without exactly the right conditions, however, this becomes an almost impossible model to make work. When we work against nature instead of with it, we are taking advantage of something nature offers that the economy doesn’t: resiliency.

The benefits of agroecology

map-agroecology

Photo creidt: Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Soil Health Center and the USDA (Used under Creative Commons license).

Restoring democratic control

When policies are set by multinational corporations and through trade agreements, it tends to erode the relationship between people and democracy. When laws and rules set at summits and in boardrooms, even countries struggle to adapt policies to best suit local conditions. But by definition, democracy is built from the grassroots up. When decisions are made from the top down, as they are currently, it can diminish people’s sense of control over their own lives.

One of the most exciting aspects of agroecology is that it puts control back into the hands of local communities. Right now, corporate agriculture is intrinsically inflexible: because it’s simpler (and more cost-effective) to have one policy and one process for the whole world, not much is up for discussion. Individual farmers and their communities don’t get many chances to adapt or refine any part of the food production system, from crop selection to market distribution. Corporate rights to protect their property—including seed genetics and farming techniques—often lock small producers into a long-term, expensive relationships. These crops aren’t grown inasmuch as their genetics are licensed, so even something as sensible as reserving some of one year’s harvest to provide the seed for the next year’s planting becomes a violation of the farmer’s contract.

This system is squelching innovation and it’s easy to see why: corporate agriculture is almost impossible to avoid because nearly every economic institution, government and international trade agreement has been crafted to propagate this one particular system. And as the system has grown, the number of corporations that service it have dwindled since concentrating supply chains under one umbrella is economically efficient, too. There may not be a monopoly yet, but corporate agriculture is a juggernaut. Around the world, farming is less about stewardship of the land and more about setting up a franchise business. When you’re trying to throw in your two cents, you probably won’t get a multi-billion-dollar corporation to listen.

Markets are not the best forum for democratic decision-making. Although markets are the best place for some human endeavors to flourish, they are not the sole mechanism people can use to determine their own futures. Revitalizing the autonomy of local communities means that many decisions that are currently made via stock exchanges must be made via ballot boxes.

photo-voted

A voter in the U.S. shows off her coveted “I Voted” sticker in front of the polling place. Photo Credit: lettawren (Used under Creative Commons license).

Local systems mean local control

Agroecology, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of designing multiple systems, each based on its area’s unique environment. This diversity in systems is virtually impossible to direct centrally—it short circuits top-down decision-making and strengthens exercise of local democratic control.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t room in agroecology for international trade agreements, national laws, or even large corporations. But the relationship between political and economic institutions and the billions of people they serve is different. Instead of managing farming areas from remote centers of power like Washington and Wall Street, national and international institutions support and develop the choices that different communities make for themselves.

This isn’t to say that communities are economically isolated, either. There would still be trade, both within countries and between them. The trends of urbanization are likely to continue, after all, and more and more people are consumers—not producers—of food, so commercial farming isn’t going to end any time soon. But, again, the relationship between producers and consumers should change.

In corporate agriculture, consumers are treated as the end of the road: the decisions consumers make are limited entirely to what they buy and where they buy it. Not much thought is given to the chain of production that brings food to the store. In agroecology, however, consumers are considered another link in the cycle of agricultural production. Instead of being consumers whose sole function is to shop, people are encouraged to develop relationships with their producers and become customers instead.

The health of resources like water, land and air effect us all, and agriculture can be one of the biggest sources of contaminants. Because of that, everyone should have a voice when decisions are made concerning agriculture. The health of rural communities and the status of farm workers is of concern to everyone, too. When rural communities fail, the people relocate—and as the 20th century demonstrated, they relocate to cities. In developed nations like the United States, this means small communities are abandoned in the name of economic efficiency, even though the people who live there desperately wish to stay. In developing nations like Nigeria and Brazil, it adds to the global south’s ongoing humanitarian crisis of urban poverty as already overburdened municipalities struggle to accommodate more displaced farmers. In both cases, entire ways of life are lost, casualties of a system that trusts stock markets to make every decision.

We can solve this problem

As we have seen, the threat that drought poses in the coming decades—and centuries—is deeply serious. But this threat has been needlessly amplified by how we respond to and prepare for drought. We are attempting to address long-term challenges with short-term solutions, driven by the corporate fixation on boosting profits from quarter to quarter. But we are rapidly approaching the time when corporations cannot simply pack up and move on once they have exhausted the resources of a community. We are running out of places to hide from the future.

But we have also seen that there are viable, practical solutions to the drought crisis—and that our history demonstrates that careful government action guided by citizens’ democratic participation can successfully manage drought and build more resilient communities.

The challenge now is to recognize that we must act urgently, not to solve an immediate crisis, but to adjust to a new world with as little disruption and upheaval as we can. We will develop new agricultural, economic and political systems to meet this emerging era in human history. The choice is ours whether we develop them through careful, democratic action—or scramble to survive when our luck finally runs out.

We invite you to join us to plan for a better world now, to work on developing and deploying the solutions to drought and climate change. The severity of the drought cycle is beginning to outpace our ability to cope with individual droughts and storms—but we still have some time to get ahead of the cycle. It is better that we learn to evolve rather than hope our civilization can rise from the ashes once it has burned.