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Commentary: Oil, climate, agriculture and learning to love limits

(Note: Commentaries do not necessarily represent the position of ASPO-USA.)

“New technology is almost as alluring as sex. Once humans have experienced any invention that eases physical effort, they will not give it up. That is the behavioral characteristic that may destroy us as a species. Curiously, only in sports do we agree to eschew technological advances, making rules, for example, to limit the power potential of baseball bats. We understand that technology will ruin our games, but we do not understand that it can also ruin cultures.”

- Gene Logsdon Living At Nature’s Pace

I imagine that at some point, most of us have played some sport or another. At some point we have accepted the notion that our play can be more fun, more competitive, more just, more joyous, in some ways more free, if we accept a host of rules and limits to what we can do. In our play almost all of us accept that limits are necessary, not just to protect safety, but to make the game better. Thus we accept no double bounces, no leading, no elbows - because without those rules, pleasure is diminished.

How is that we don’t spend our lives chafing against the rules in sport? After all, in the economy as a whole, we’re told in a thousand ways that limits are bad, and that “choice” is the same as “freedom.” Why is it that limits work when we’re playing games, but are restrictions on our personal freedoms when we are told “now is not the time for asparagus, now is the time for squash” or “we should consider the bicycle rather than the car.”

The word “limits” is something of a dirty word in the present economic system. It evokes someone forcing us to accept less than we want. It is however important to be suspicious of our instinctive assumption that this is the case. Advertisements tell us that “freedom” is tied into our right to “choose” between largely indistinguishable colas, rather than something greater than that. In the corporate language, freedom is tied to economic choice, and the freedom “to do” things.

Historically, however, we’ve understood freedom both as the right to certain things, but also the right to be free of certain dangers and certain kinds of suffering. Corporate freedom makes no mention of those other rights, the right, for example, not to be endangered by environmental consequences, or to have oil for another generation. We are told we have a right to buy clean water from any of many sources, but no right to freedom from contamination of our water supplies, the right to choose between disasters but no right to prevent them by constraining choice.

We have allowed advertising to reframe the idea of freedom - thus, because freedom of speech means minimal limits on speech, it is equivalent to the freedom to choose your products. This is false - freedom to pollute or shop was not articulated in the US Constitution - indeed, the Constitution implicitly *excludes* purchasing from its list of primary human rights, transforming Locke’s “life, liberty and property” into “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” It is notable that happiness often depends heavily on others not doing certain things.

The iconic expressions of American rights almost all emphasize freedom “from” at least as much as they do “freedom to” - that is, the Constitution emphasizes rights as a means of freeing people from tyranny. One of the most familiar images in American history is Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” posters in which freedom of speech and worship, classic “freedom to” images are conjoined with “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” - freedoms that to be enforced involve conscious attempts at equitable distribution and peace.

Why does any of this matter? What does it have to do with agriculture? Well, one of the central questions of our time is how our energy and environmental crisis will play out at dinner tables around the world. As I write this, battles over the next global warming response are occurring in South Africa and a resounding silence on our energy future is being exuded from Capitol Hill. Central to the debate over what our future will be is a simple question - who will pay the price when the bill comes due? That that price will involve food intimately is indisputable.

In South Africa much of the debate over response demands we ask whether the poor world be penalized for its emissions as it attempts to bring things like running water and occasional meat consumption to billions of terribly poor people, or will the people who have done the most to cause global warming have to pay the price?

In our energy discussion, we choose blindness about the limits of our responses, imagining that biofuels are infinitely scalable without costs in hunger and soil depletion, that we can switch to renewable any time we want to with minimal effort, that all it takes is the marketplace and the desire. Thus we pass on a depleted future to our children and grandchildren, reversing the history course of justice in which parents and grandparents take on burdens to spare their children, and accepting implicitly that because of us, our children may go hungry when we pass on to them a world with a shortage of liquid fuels to deliver their food and an insufficient low-energy agriculture to sustain them.

At this very moment the world produces enough food to feed everyone plenty of food each day - and in fact, it produces enough food right now to feed the world’s projected population of 9 -10 billion an adequate, if not abundant diet. The question of whether we can do so with vastly fewer fossil inputs, however, is a more complex one. We can increase these numbers in some measures, as long as we do so while constantly asking the question - what are we drawing down? What we cannot do is create a world in which we can feed nine billion people and the rich world’s cars and appetite for large quantities of feedlot beef. We cannot create a world that offers refrigerated shipping and strawberries in January for all. That is not possible. We must scale back our ambitions and focus on creating a low or no oil agriculture that can feed a hungry planet over the long haul.

When we do our calculations of what rights we have, we need to ask ourselves whether freedom from starvation is one of them. If you and I have that right, how is it that other people, in other places in the world don’t? The central presumption of human rights is that they are universal - they pertain to you whether you have a government that supports them or not, whether or not you are fortunate or unfortunate. Human rights are non-contingent on outer factors - so if you and I have the right not to be starved by someone’s actions everyone does. Manifestly, we struggle to enforce freedom from want - and yet most of us would certainly want that right for ourselves and our posterity.

No one in the poor world is ever going to accept two sets of rights - you have the right to drive your car to get to work, they don’t have the right to eat, we have the right to hot showers and they have no right to a village pump. The rest of the world will try, by hook or by crook, in any way they can, to bring themselves up to the standard of living they see projected outwards, that they watch on television, that they are told is the right of every person. In this global game of chicken, we starve billions and leave everyone with less.

The only possible way for us to ask for others to limit themselves is for us to model those limits - Americans who have modeled only the idea that there are no limits must be the first ones to volunteer for the new world of limits.

Fortunately, the world of limits has some intriguing benefits that we will probably enjoy - just as it does come with some constraints we probably won’t. In fact, life is a little like a game - when you blow the rules, you may be having fun, but you aren’t playing baseball anymore, and something is lost. If we want to play the game, to get the thrill of victory, we have to play by the rules of the material limits we are running up against. There’s a challenge there, and an artfulness worth cultivating.

Agriculture is one of the places we might begin to establish and explore a world of limits that works from the principle that everyone is entitled to a fair share because it is one of the primary sites to find the pleasures of limitation. Nowhere is the potential benefit of self-limitation greater than in our cuisine - all the world’s great foods begin from constraint.

The greatest cuisines in human history derive from people creating deliciousness of all sorts from a narrow and limited array of ingredients indigenous to their place. The cuisines of Tuscany, Hunan Province, Northern Mexico and Southern France, as well as great American and Canadian regional cuisines arose from constraint - the necessity of rendering fabulous the things that grew well there, those abundant and appropriate to their place. We travel the world to eat truly authentic foods like these - without fully realizing that what made them great was the transformation of limits into art. Just as baseball is artful precisely because there are constraints, so too is dinner, when true, deep sweetness or umami or bright heat of flavor is extracted and made perfect by things that go naturally together, by the genius of a place.

It is no accident that while Peak Oil and climate change activists bewail their failure to make much progress in policy, the food culture radicalizes and transforms in ways that any movement would envy - food is impassioning, empowering, delighting, inspiring. Food is a lever that moves the world. If the task of coming to terms with limits seems to challenging in many respects, we might begin with something immediately rewarding - dinner. From the language of food can emerge the language of other kinds of self-restraint and self-limitation, but it can begin as we eat, with what and how we eat and grow. Indeed, it must begin there, because our life, liberty and happiness will depend profoundly on dinner.

Sharon Astyk is a writer, teacher and science blogger (www.scienceblogs.com/casaubonsbook) and a member of the Board of Directors of ASPO-USA.

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