Mining the world to death

July 16, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedThe following is an excerpt from We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out , in print at and on Kindle (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013).

Progressive analyses of inequality and injustice focus on the illegitimate hierarchies in patriarchy, white supremacy, the imperial nation-state system, and capitalism. The final hierarchal system—and in some ways the most dangerous—is the industrial model of human development, the latest and most intense version of an unsustainable extractive economy.

The bounty that makes contemporary mass consumption possible did not, of course, drop out of the sky. It was ripped out of the ground and drawn from the water in a fashion that has left the continent ravaged, a dismemberment of nature that is an unavoidable consequence of a worldview that glorifies domination.

“From [Europeans’] first arrival we have behaved as though nature must be either subdued or ignored,” writes the scientist and philosopher Wes Jackson, one of the leading thinkers in the sustainable agriculture movement. As Jackson points out, our economy has always been extractive, even before the industrial revolution dramatically accelerated the assault in the 19th century and the petrochemical revolution began poisoning the world more intensively in the 20th. We mined the forests, soil, and aquifers, just as we eventually mined minerals and fossil fuels, leaving ecosystems ragged and in ruin, perhaps beyond recovery in any human timeframe. All that was done by people who believed in their right to dominate.

One way to understand that domination is the context of the two major revolutions in human history—the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

The agricultural revolution started about 10,000 years ago when a gathering-hunting species discovered how to cultivate plants for food and domesticate animals. Two crucial things resulted from that, one ecological and one political. Ecologically, the invention of agriculture kicked off an intensive human assault on natural systems. Gathering-hunting humans were capable of damaging a local ecosystem, but the large-scale destruction we cope with today has its origins in agriculture when humans began exhausting the energy-rich carbon of the soil, what Jackson has described as the first step in the entrenchment of an extractive economy and Jared Diamond has called “the worst mistake in human history.”

Human agricultural practices vary from place to place but have never been sustainable over the long term. Politically, the ability to stockpile food made possible concentrations of power and resulting hierarchies that were foreign to gathering-hunting societies. Again, this is not to say that humans were not capable of doing bad things to each other prior to agriculture, but only that what we understand, as large-scale institutionalized oppression has its roots in agriculture. We need not romanticize pre-agricultural life to recognize the ways in which agriculture made possible dramatically different levels of unsustainability and injustice.

The industrial revolution that began in the last half of the 18th century in Great Britain intensified the magnitude of the human assault on ecosystems. Unleashing the concentrated energy of coal, oil and natural gas to run a machine-based world has produced unparalleled material comfort for some. Whatever one thinks of the effect of such comforts on human psychology (and, in my view, the effect has been mixed), the processes that produce the comfort are destroying the capacity of the ecosphere to sustain human life as we know it into the future, and in the present those comforts are not distributed in a fashion that is consistent with any meaningful conception of justice. The ecological consequences of this revolution are painfully obvious.

These two changes in human history come together today in what typically is called “industrial agriculture,” the dominant method of producing food at this moment in history in the United States, the rest of the developed world, and increasingly in the developing world. It is a style of agriculture that everyone agrees has produced substantial increases in yields, tripling the world grain harvest in the second half of the 20th century. Critics, however, point out that those yields have come at the cost of deep, and possibly permanent, injuries to the land, people and other species.

Various characteristics of industrial agriculture have been evolving over time, but by the second half of the 20th century the industrial system was firmly in place in the United States. The features of the current system include: (1) heavy use of nonrenewable inputs purchased off the farm, such as chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides; (2) extensive mechanization, making farming both capital- and technology-intensive; (3) heavy reliance on fossil fuels for those inputs and mechanization, to such an extent that critics joke that modern farming is the use of land to covert petroleum into food; (4) decreased self-sufficiency for individuals and communities, and increased dependence on corporations; and (5) a lack of concern for, if not outright hostility toward, systems and living things that do not directly contribute to production.

Along with the dramatic increases in food production, the predictable results of this system have been: (1) drastic and continuing loss of topsoil; (2) declining soil fertility; (3) a severe reduction in farm population; and (4) the resulting loss of knowledge of traditional methods that require fewer inputs, less technology, less capital, and more people.

This is what Jackson calls “the failure of success,” the paradox of a system that results in more food coming from fields that have less, and less fertile, soil. The so-called “Green Revolution”—a variety of research and social programs associated with the work of Nobel Prize-winning agronomist Norman Borlaug—was not really a revolution but an extension of industrial agriculture to the Third World, which resulted in short-term reductions in hunger but also exported this extremely fragile model to the developing world, creating the same long-term problems.

The agricultural revolution produced the first systematic extractive model, which set us on a road to eventual collapse. The industrial revolution ramped up our speed. The material benefits of those revolutions are not spread equally or equitably around the world, which challenges us to create a more just world as we struggle to find a new model for a sustainable world.

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and collaborates with the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College. He is the author of It’s Debatable: Talking Authentically about Tricky Topics, coming this spring from Olive Branch Press. This essay is adapted from his book An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, co-authored with Wes Jackson.

Tags: extractive economy, industrial agriculture, Industrial Revolution, social equity, Social justice