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The Limitations of Science; the Wisdom of Indigenous People; and the Farmers Who Live in Between

Jan 1, 2019 | 2019 Writings

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that
counts can be counted.”–Albert Einstein

“Primitive people as they are they taught me a new philosophy of life,
for their ignorance is nearer to truth than our prejudice.”
–Carl Lumholtz, Unknown Mexico

How did science become the albatross, the ball and chain, and the set of blinders that are preventing the beekeeping community from solving our problems? For many years I have found it impossible to avoid this question. We like to think of varroa mites as our biggest problem, and this idea serves pretty well in this discussion. How is it possible that bee science has heaped so much attention, money and brains on this problem for almost thirty years–with almost nothing of practical value to show for it–and at the same time a few or many beekeepers on every continent colonized by varroa mites have, with no resources beyond their own ability to produce and sell honey or other bee products, devised effective solutions to this problem that enable them to function almost exactly the same way they did before the mites’ arrival? The beekeeping community continues on in constant fear and worry, going from one desperate stopgap solution to the next, and crowding around the scientific megaphones hoping something genuinely helpful will finally emerge–while around the world successful, straightforward and easy-to-understand beekeeper-managed solutions are out there for anyone who takes the trouble to search them out and approach with genuine interest and respect. Please don’t ever tell anyone I said that these solutions are easy–nothing about dealing with varroa has been easy. But they have been far easier and self-correcting than the more popular stopgap solutions that beekeepers inherited from the scientific community and industrial agriculture.

Though it has been baffling and depressing to watch this happen, this whole saga has also justified a decision I made many years ago. As a young person who grew up in a typical American suburb, but who was drawn inexorably to Nature and the outdoors, I ran first to where Nature and people are now committed to an unbreakable bond–the farm. Having no background there, I was incredibly fortunate to find great mentors, and I was happy working around our domesticated plants and animals from the beginning. Later, when an injury interrupted my ability to work, I tried to apply training in biology to what I had learned on the farm. My idea was to study field ecology and then apply what I learned to my growing understanding of farming. The plan was sound, and studying field ecology at The Evergreen State College was very interesting and often a lot of fun, but it didn’t take long to be able to see clearly that science is usually not the stepwise path to enlightenment that it’s held up to be in our culture. Instead, science is a haphazard process following the path of least resistance, and operating within whatever structure provides the most resources and prestige. Science has to serve and function within the predatory and self-destructive society that supports it. These facts by themselves make science a very weak and ineffective contributor to the type of organic farming I learned from my mentors. The beauty, variety, productivity and healthy lifestyle inherent in these systems all grew out of the wisdom and abilities accumulated over countless generations. These agrarians had no other way to succeed than by helping their farms encompass more life and diversity year by year; while at the same time remaining comfortable surrounded by countless mysteries they knew they would never solve. With Faith and what came from the ancestors as their foundation and roof, they were as prepared as any people can be to face the future in a positive and creative way. It’s still true today, and the difference between approaching Nature as a small farmer or as a scientist began looking to me like the difference between hiking through a primeval forest and being confined in a prison yard breaking up rocks. After three years of being immersed in the ways of science, I returned to the world of beekeeping and small organic farms. I’ve been very happy there ever since–despite the pummeling both have taken at the hands of our society.

In addition to the issue of who funds bee and ag research, science has some basic structural problems that make it particularly ineffective for finding good solutions to real farming problems. At this point I’ll have to describe what I mean by Real Farming and how it differs from the current most common way of plundering our once and future beautiful countryside–Industrial Agriculture:

Real Farming is organized around abundant life. From one corner of the farm to the other; from where the soil hits bedrock to the tops of the tallest trees, life is encouraged to wax and multiply. Many different plants and animals live there–including near infinite varieties of microbial life. The water is clean and safe to drink. People actually live there, and they enjoy working outside when the sun is shining, and inside their barns and workshops when the weather is stormy. Every real farm is a compact between Nature and the farm family, and no two of them are the same. Each one starts with a unique location, and reflects the farmer’s own creative genius. They have a long history, and they all hope to extend into future generations. Organic farming is having a nomenclature crisis at the moment, so these farms also now have a wide variety of names for themselves, including organic, biodynamic, regenerative, biological, permaculture…and many more. We need them all. When refering to the whole group, I still prefer the original modern label: Organic Farming.

Industrial Ag, in contrast, is really by far the largest mining operation the planet has ever seen. It’s purpose is to extract from the land the largest possible quantity of poor quality food, at the lowest possible price. Whole landscapes that were once a beautiful patchwork of forests, prairies and small farms have been made into monoculture deserts. The livestock are raised separately from their food–crowded into concentration camps that are so unhealthy that antibiotics and supplements are included in all their rations. Trying to dispose of the manure creates huge pollution problems, while the cropland, (hundreds or thousands of miles away), suffers from fertility problems, and needs a constant supply of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in order to produce anything. All of this madness is tended by machines that grow larger and more sophisticated every year; plus a very few people. The energy inputs required are enormous–many times the calories eventually harvested as food. I used to think that the end goal of Industrial Ag was to produce the world’s food with the smallest possible number of farmers. Now it’s clear that the real goal is to produce the food without people at all. The giant companies that control most of North American agriculture now are much closer to achieving their goal than most people realize. Soon we will have a food system based on a robotic agriculture.

Science has completely different roles to play in these two different agricultural systems: Organic Farming and Industrial Ag. To paraphrase George Henderson (author of the wonderful books: The Farming Ladder and Farmer’s Progress)–who first suggested this back in the 1940’s: “The only two things that science has really done for agriculture are: 1) proving the ancient methods and; 2) creating industrial agriculture.”

Science has some basic structural flaws that make it unsuitable for solving problems in real farming; or any living system. Almost by definition, science is constantly trying to deconstruct living systems into smaller and simpler pieces; trying to find a stable place with few variables, where hypotheses can be tested repeatedly with the same results. But when these partially alive fragments are joined back together with the whole, variables multiply exponentially, and it becomes once again difficult to predict and steer outcomes. My favorite concept from all of academic biology is that each separate species occupies an “dimensional hyperspace” (ecological niche), where n is an unknown and potentially infinite number. This means that each species occupies a space with so many dimensions (time, temperature, geographic location, associations, pH, light level, water availability, etc) that many of them are unknown and maybe even uncountable. This may be the closest thing we have to an admission by science itself that Nature, as we have it here on earth, is in the end unknowable; and that the more we know about one tiny part of it, the less we know of the whole.

Real farmers don’t have the option of breaking Nature into pieces and then dealing with them one by one. They have to deal with the whole enchilada, all day every day. And they have no choice but to try to move toward beauty, diversity, health and resilience–with mystery as their constant companion. Faith and the wisdom of the ancestors are the only true guides here. In this arena, science can easily become a set of blinders, or an albatross. The profits (broadly defined) of organic farming are largely re-invested in the whole system, and can support only a small amount of science. Luckily, it needs even less. There have been a few more contributions than just proving the ancient methods; but they have largely come from peripheral fields more suited to scientific interference. Better tools (from metallurgy), and the location of wild-type honeybees already tolerant of varroa mites (from geography and taxonomy) are two good examples. You have to ask however, whether these advances really come from scientific research–or from inspired iron-masters and local beekeepers. Roger Paine, the famous whale researcher, wrote in his book Among Whales: “Any observant local knows more than any visiting scientist. Always. No exceptions.”

Industrial Agriculture, at the other extreme, is the child of science, is flawed just the same way science is, and requires a constant infusion of new science to try to correct the imbalances created by the last temporary “advance”. Scientists conducting experiments in the natural world try to simplify their experimental arena in order to reduce variables and obtain repeatable results. Scientific industrial ag simplifies agricultural ecosystems so that just one crop can occupy as much of the biosphere as possible, and so machines can do most or all of the work. This is supposed to be the way to produce the most food, and feed people for the lowest cost.

Obviously, none of this is possible at all without a massive supply of cheap energy–many times the energy eventually collected by the crops. Science and engineering have become especially skilled at finding and extracting every last speck of fossil carbon from anywhere under the ground, ice or shallow water; so it’s still “game on” for the fantasy that a robotic agriculture can feed us now and in the future.

However, even with abundant fuel, problems set in almost immediately when land is oversimplified with monocultures. The soils’ fertility is quickly exhausted, and without diversity in the ecosystem, the land loses the ability to produce its own fertilizer. So chemical fertilizers are needed, along with large amounts of additional energy to move, process and transport these materials. Even with these added nutrients (still only a fraction of what has been lost in the monocrop system) the crop plants lose their vitality and begin attracting insect pests. One of the basic tenants of organic farming is that healthy crops are a poor food for insect pests, and do not attract them. Phillip Callahan (see his book: Tuning in to Nature) and others showed decades ago that unhealthy and unbalanced crops actually broadcast radio signals begging pest insects to come and eat them–so they can be recycled and help to restore true soil fertility. Instead of following up on these observations, ag science looked instead to industrial poisons developed during World War II for a simple way to kill pest insects, and thus created the pesticide industry. When a certain poison is effective against a pest, it only takes a few to several generations before the pest becomes resistant to the chemical and again threatens the crop. A new control must then be devised, and so an endless arms race begins between science and the pest. Beekeeping entered this arms race when varroa mites came to our beeyards, and science welcomed us as the newest members of the industrial ag club. As an industry we were the last holdouts in the farming community.
Herbicides added the finishing touches to our campaign against the earth. Now, with low organic matter, and exposed to the wind and weather during fall, winter and spring, the only thing left of the ecosystem–the soil–begins to depart as well, headed for the ocean. American Indian leaders left behind some observations and quotes that were written down when white settlers first came to the U.S. Midwest. (I’ve lost the quote I copied down several years ago, and if anyone knows where to find the text and the source, and could send them to me, I would be very grateful.) In so many words they say: “When the white men first came to this country, the first thing they did was to drive out the Indians and the wild animals we once used for food and clothing. Then they cut down all the trees–our old friends since the beginning of time. A few of these trees they used to build their houses, and the rest they burned. Then they plowed the ground until no grass or bush was left alive. Their crops grew in this ground for a few years until they would yield no more. When nothing was left, they departed and started all over again off to the west.” These were industrial farmers before their time.

Science, of course, is a partner with controlling interest at every stage of the industrial ag process. Soil fertility, pest control, waste disposal, and the design and manufacture of ever larger machines all need scientists to guide the process from one crisis to another. And their funding comes from the sale of all the inputs they have created to prop up this huge house of cards. Mining the soil on such a colossal scale drove the price of commodities so low that farmers often have nothing left after selling their crop, and then paying for all the fuel, fertilizer, machines, pesticides and loans they need to operate this way. As we moved from more than half of our population farming full-time in 1900 to somewhere around 1% today, many of the farmers who dropped out during the last eighty years had to face the realization that their lifetime of hard work was in fact largely devoted to putting themselves out of business. At each stage of the process, the surviving farmers with more equity borrow more money, take over the bankrupt farms, and continue the march toward a robotic agriculture with one or two live farmers for each county. No matter how low commodity prices go, the purveyors of machinery, fertilizers, pesticides and borrowed money take a tithe on every bushel, and have plenty of money to fund the science and advice that will protect their interests. The trouble is, with global warming and the massive manipulation of natural ecosystems by people, the Earth’s biology is changing faster than science’s ability to document it, let alone provide solutions.

Agricultural science could theoretically follow a different path. After all, isn’t science just the investigation of our world, and the attempt to find the parts of it that are predictable? More scientists could have followed up on what Sir Albert Howard and Phillip Callahan did. (A few have.) But in the end, most of these lines lead back to the same place–proving the ancient methods. Science can help here and there, but over thousands of years our ancestors painstakingly identified and learned to use all the plants, animals and techniques we need in order to provide for our selves as part of Nature. Inspired organic agriculture or natural farming does not need very much science because it is composed of long-established patterns that are self-regulating, contain great diversity, and function as a whole–without any need to know or understand all the parts, even if we could. The danger now is that the transmission of this knowledge and wisdom has been interrupted as indigenous people and farmers inspired by tradition are being destroyed and crowded out by the same industrial civilization that chose to get its food without people involved.

In addition to being steered in destructive ways, science has become a ball and chain for all of us in another way: We are giving it far more power and prestige than it deserves, and expecting it to perform tasks for which it is very poorly equipped. Science has become the default religion of our civilization. It is to our culture what Buddhism was to the culture of Tibet before the Chinese invasion. Now that so many farm families have been relieved of their old jobs, a really sizable percentage of the population is being trained in the scientific monastic system. Colleges and Universities are the new monasteries, and all the acolytes hope one day, after some years of esoteric study, to be certified as brahmins and well paid and respected for their wisdom–without having to experience the consequences wrought by their advice.

Science is just a tool, like a socket wrench; and it may be a very powerful and effective tool for performing certain tasks the way a socket wrench is for twisting nuts and bolts on and off. But when you’re faced with existential problems involving how to live together, in a healthy way, with all the other living things we share the Earth with, scientific advice has a very poor record of success. For problems like these, the last place you would go for advice is to your socket wrenches. Technology has rocketed ahead with each new piece of information coming from physics or chemistry; and together with energy extraction has enabled us to seriously alter the environment on every continent. We’ve been able to convert sizable parts of that environment into our food and material possessions that we buy, sell, hoard, fight over and eventually use up and throw away. With problems of biology however, science founders at every step, because of its foundational requirement to break things up into smaller pieces, and its inability to deal with complexity. But because we are hypnotized by the advance of technology, and the abundance of material things, we look to science for guidance and answers to our biology problems as well. The difficulties are further compounded when we train too many people as scientists, and they all need to make a mark and justify their existence somehow.

Look at the ridiculous situation in health and nutrition. Milk, butter, eggs, meat, salt, wine, tomatoes, potatoes, wheat–these foods and many others go in and out of favor as each generation of new food scientists try to make a name for themselves. In one decade you must avoid them or terrible consequences might ensue; and in the next they become essential to health and well-being. Family doctors explain patiently during routine physicals why adults should quit eating the foods that fed their healthy and long-lived ancestors and adopt a new diet of expensive foods from another culture, grown far away, and which they don’t know how to prepare. Often important points which are accessible to science–like the different nutritional values of foods grown by different methods–don’t even get considered. The worst part is that scientists behave as if the foods were actually dangerous for you during their out-of-favor time, and only by their insight and sheer brilliance did they become healthy again. I thank God every day that I lived long enough to experience a time when butter is good for you once again; and my constant prayer is that life might extend long enough to repair–by eating butter– all the damage I did to myself all those previous years, by eating butter.

And what could better illustrate the limited scope of science than the response to varroa mites in N. America over the last three decades? After nearly thirty years, millions of dollars and enlisting some of the best brains in science, they are still on the starting line, worrying about the next temporary control measure; and unable or unwilling to work with the problem in a larger context where some real solutions might be found; and have been found by others not restricted by the limitations of science. To solve problems like this, complexity must be faced head on–and this is where the methods and structure of science start to break down.

The whole point of writing this essay is to try to illuminate successful organic farmers as the best source of the advice, knowledge and wisdom we need to solve our problems of health and biology. The people who spend the best part of their lives with, and depend entirely for their livelihood on an intimate association with their crops, livestock, and the larger environment, are our best examples and should be leaders who are given a fair “crack at the whip”. The accumulated knowledge and wisdom, gleaned from the life and death experience of untold generations of ancestors, and continually amended and compounded by the current custodians of the environment, are a far greater and more valuable resource than the short-term, scattershot and politically motivated pronouncements of science. In an analogy that Americans can relate to, you might as well compare the vaults of Fort Knox with a piggy bank. When we need cash for a big project like restoring the natural world, we go to the piggy bank because we think “That’s where the money is”. John Dillinger didn’t make that mistake; and neither should we.
The assumption of brahminic status by scientists–bestowed on them by our society–has done its work to diminish the stature and self-confidence of real farmers, and muzzle their voices in our conversations about the future of Nature and humanity. But there’s another, even more devastating reason why our farmers are losing their ability to guide us to a better future: there aren’t many of them left. By choosing to organize a society around the exploitation of natural resources and the accumulation of material wealth above all other goals we, almost by definition, committed ourselves to the marginalization of our real farmers, and to replacing them with machines, fossil energy and simple systems as quickly as possible. During colonial times, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington among others, complained in their diaries and letters about the difficulty of finding good tradesmen to work on their houses–because so many of the colonists wanted to have the farms they were shut out of in Europe. By the Civil War time however, the trend of replacing people with machines was well underway, as so many men were drawn into the conflict, and never came home. Each subsequent war accellerated this process until it finally emerged as a policy goal after World War II. This epic, global conflict left us with a huge capacity to produce farm machinery, and for the first time, the ability to wage widespread chemical warfare against insect “pests”, and ourselves.

A continuous supply of cheap energy, and society’s approval of exploitation and accumulation over beauty and health have by this time reduced our real farming population to the status and situation of other indigenous populations that have been marginalized and driven from their homes. Some people have criticized me for making this comparison but, as a small farmer myself, I still think it is valid. American farmers may have been much better equipped to adapt to an industrial society than indigenous peoples were, but they experienced much of the same poverty, heartbreak, and disorientation experienced by native peoples. The USDA is now to real farmers what the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been to our Indian tribes. No, there have not been any occasions of soldiers rounding up and murdering bands of farmers, solely because of their occupation or ancestry–but there is a worldwide epidemic of farmer suicides today; from one acre farms in India to 1000 acre spreads in the American Midwest. These people are unable to express the despair, shame, physical and mental pain they live with every day from not being able to fit their farms and their lives into the society that surrounds them. Are they not being subjected to a terrible and insidious form of abandonment and violence?

And talk about biting the hand that feeds you. The only things maintaining a reliable supply of food for most of the world’s growing population is cheap energy and constant manipulation of the environment by science and technology. These things will not last forever–and when they are gone we will have nowhere to go except to the wisdom of the ancestors. The transmission of this wisdom has been thoroughly interrupted, and if we lose it entirely, we would truly be in a place without hope.

The purpose of this essay is to show where there is still hope. From my own work and passion for honeybees, I know that while half of the colonies in the U.S. are transported thousands of miles on modern trucks, and then treated with all kinds of special foods and drugs to counteract all the stress we impose on them, there are still places in the world where beekeeping and honey hunting are still carried out exactly as they were depicted on cave walls and Egyptian tombs thousands of years ago. The bees in these primitive beekeeping systems are self-regulating, and do not depend on inputs or manipulation from us. In between the modern and “primitive” beekeeping are a few people like myself who have tried to combine elements of both systems into something that is productive, resilient, and suited to our time and place.

The same thing goes on in the other branches of agriculture. Organic farmers (what I keep calling “real” farmers) carry out their own versions of the ancient methods with modern tools. At the same time that commodity prices are constantly being pushed down by cheap fossil energy, technology and borrowed money, these real farms have continued to survive because they are elegantly organized, solvent; and their costs are very low. The farms produce much of their own energy, fertilizer–even the labor and management are built into the biological framework of the farm. These farms are mirrors of natural ecosystems; and the more successful they are, the harder it is to determine where the farm ends, and where the wilderness begins.
But there’s more to it than that: These real farmers who have succeeded share something else as well. Arrogance and hubris have given way to humility and wonder. They all have rejected the goals, methods and schedules of our dominant, materialist culture; and have somehow found a way to live largely outside of that culture. The Anabaptist groups: Amish, Mennonite and Hutterite made this choice long ago–as a community. Their strong family and farm-oriented church groups are a wonderful example of what’s possible. The rest of us (the “English”) who followed this path have had a very different experience. Where the Amish succeeded by conforming to their ancestral community, we could only succeed by rejecting our birth community and becoming really determined mavericks and individuals. The distress and isolation caused by walking this road has been by far the biggest obstacle we have faced; and it’s what makes even the most successful among us still very vulnerable in certain situations. As hard as it has been though, many important things were learned, of necessity, this way. By leaving one culture, without having a fully formed new one to join, imposed on us a sort of rapid spiritual innovation as we tried to find honest answers to why we were leaving, what we were bringing with us, and what our new guideposts were going to be–and again Why? In the end, this may turn out to be the most valuable lesson of all. Which elements of tradition will we combine with new ways of thinking and acting as we face the future?

We need both the Amish and the maverick “English” farming perspective to have a healthy future for humanity. For me one of the most hopeful signs is to see, and experience myself, connections moving back and forth between these two groups. Together they, and so many other farmers, have become the most recent addition to the list of indigenous peoples who have been marginalized and often disenfranchised by the dominant industrial society. Their accumulated knowledge and wisdom, along with other indigenous intelligence, is the key to a decent life for humanity in the future. None of these people are holding on to their heirlooms and new discoveries as secrets–you just have to respectfully ask, and be ready to receive. And if you do actually imbibe these teachings and take them to heart, a well guarded secret will be revealed to you: that Nature-oriented farming is a wonderful way of life that alleviates much of the suffering experienced by modern Americans. Like so many spirit-based things, it can be experienced but not described. But we have to keep trying; hoping that our descriptions might open someone’s eyes, heart and mind. Here is a page copied verbatim from one of my random notebooks. Once in awhile they seem to make sense when I read them again months (or years) later:

“Scientists come here, and take pride in pointing out a case of european foulbrood, or that not all the colonies in my cell-building yard have survived the winter. Based on a few such observations they are happy to conclude that my plan is marginal or failing and is not worthy of others’ attention. But by relying on such specific observations, they have no clue of the comprehensive whole… The apiary experiences a constant ebb and flow of an infinite number of factors. A european foulbrood epidemic may or may not be starting; which may or may not steer my attention and actions in a new or changed direction at some point. A casual visitor might notice a sign of something to come… But they can’t notice the absence of even a single case of american foulbrood over six or seven years, or the presence of only ten or less cases over thirty years–despite being surrounded by apiaries with a history of american foulbrood. Whatever process is at work here has unknowable ramifications in infinite directions…
All I can do is point out that the apiary has supported itself and its employee (myself) for many years; with constantly growing income and leisure; paid for my home, workshop, vehicles; and is now paying for the development of an eighty acre farm…all this from not trying to accumulate or prove anything–just always trying to find the best configuration for the bees to have their own natural health and resilience.”

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