Branching Pathways of Development



Presentation to the symposium “Sustainability in the Balance” at Tufts University School of Nutrition April 11, 2006

                                                                             Richard Levins

 Harvard School of Public Health , Boston, Massachusetts, USA  and

Cuban Institute of Ecology and Systematics, Boyeros, Ciudad Havana, Cuba


          We are now facing an eco-social crisis of immense proportions. The Eco-social distress syndrome is a pervasive multi-dimensional dysfunctional relation between our species and the rest of nature and also among ourselves, an incongruence between the magnitude of the problems and our organizational and intellectual capacity to confront them.  It is more global than previous crises, reaches deeper into the ground, higher into the atmosphere, it affects more aspects of our lives, even offering eyes and kidneys and the creative products of our arts and the fruit of our thought for sale, emotional support and wombs for rent. It is more long lasting and less reversible. It includes the undermining of our main life support systems—forestry, fishing, range land and cropland. It includes the exhaustion of non-renewable resources and over-use of renewable ones to the point where they may be lost for ever. It pollutes our physical and social habitats (air, water with toxic substances and bigotries) and makes us more vulnerable to new and resurgent infectious disease in people, animals and plants. It creates demographic imbalance and is provoking disastrous climate change. It increases the frequency of local and short term disasters. There is a great gap between the magnitude of the problems and our knowledge for coping with them. Worse, it erodes our homeostatic system, our capacity to respond to the changing conditions.

          This crisis is a crisis of the human species as a whole but also, since it has really emerged in the last 300 or 400 years of world capitalism, it is also a crisis of the capitalist system. When we look at it from the perspective of the species, it is permissible to talk about “we”. But as the frame of reference shifts to the particulars of capitalism, it is always necessary to ask “what do you mean by we?” and a little bit of finger pointing is necessary.

          Agriculture is one aspect of the crisis. Simply stated, people are hungry and world capacity to produce is being undermined, but the undermining is covered up by dumping in more fertilizers and chemicals and expanding horizontally into less and less suitable areas. Consider for a moment the simple fact of hunger. Is it that they are doing their best but their best isn’t enough? But in that case how come farmers are being forced to abandon farming? How come coffee, tea, and drugs dominate the world trade in agricultural products? How come crops are often grown in unsuitable habitats or that wheat production was increased in India at the expense of chickpeas?  Why does Mexico import corn? How come precious water in Rajistan is used to grow chili peppers, lowering the water table, and the Sahel exported fresh flowers to Europe during the drought of the 1970’s? Or maybe science doesn’t understand enough to produce sufficient food? But in that case why does so much research go into marketing or inventing marketable commodities to sell farmers as inputs, and so little into finding gentler technologies?

          But if we consider an alternative hypothesis it begins to make sense: agriculture is not in the business of feeding people but of producing marketable commodities. The distinction between commodities and utilities is fundamental to our understanding of the dynamics of capitalism:

As commodities, all goods are interchangeable on the single scale of profitability.       It is a matter of indifference to a corporation whether to invest in medicines to save lives or armaments to destroy lives, or lawyers to deny they are destroying lives, in electing Senators or planting rice, or opening a chain of second hand car dealerships or in marketing what they already produce. In a certain sense their true slogan is “Profit is our only product”.    Profit may be enhanced by producing more or producing less, by improving the quality of goods or debasing the quality but giving it a good press. It may be enhanced by producing useful things or harmful things and if there is no market, creating the market for it, convincing people that they couldn’t possibly live without it. Profit may be increased by intensifying the exploitation of workers, downsizing, outsourcing, casualizing employment. It may be increased by hiding the social costs to people’s health, to the environment, to the capacity to produce, or by lobbying. Knowledge may be created if it leads to marketable commodities and ignored or covered up and even falsified if it harms profit. For instance we know so much more about pesticide use than about natural enemies of pests, so much more about drugs than about creating life-enhancing working conditions. It is even sensible, in the perverse common sense of the world of commodities, to use up a renewable resource completely if its rate of reproduction is less than the rate of discount in the economy. Then the profits can be realized quickly and invested in something else. For instance the price for endangered species goes way up as they face extinction, making it more profitable to hunt them down even as the populations dwindle and the hunt becomes more expensive.

          If we go with the hypothesis that people are hungry because the world is not organized to feed people, that the object of production is not human welfare, other questions arise. What if agriculture were aimed directly at improving people’s lives? What sort of agriculture might it be? This is a bigger question than maximizing food production: agriculture affects our lives not only through the production of food, medicines and industrial raw materials. It affects world and local climate, competes with other uses for water availability, along the coastline water removal causes saline infiltrations. Through fertilizer and pesticide run-off it degrades water and air quality. It creates or destroys habitats for other species of importance to us. For deforestation usually increases the abundance of  species of malarial mosquitoes. Diversion of wetlands for farming removes the natural water purification system of cities and weakens flood control.  Erosion increases flooding, undermines productivity, and kills coral reefs and mangroves where the fish spawn. Agricultural development  provides or destroys employment and alters the economic independence of women. It can conserve or reduce biodiversity. It all depends on what kind of agricultural development.

          Development is thought of usually as proceeding along a single axis, from less developed to more developed. Then the task of the less developed is to advance along this pathway as fast as possible in the same way the developed countries did. This means advancing from high labor content to high capital investment from off the farm; from the patchwork heterogeneity of peasant farming to the homogeneity of rationalized monoculture; from the small scale of petty land tenure to the economies of large scale; from dependence on nature to overwhelming nature; from old fashioned superstition to modern science. But it also means exhausting the soil, increasing dependence on external inputs to the farm, polluting the air and water, clearing inconvenient forests and grasslands, displacing farmers to the cities, increasing the burdens of women in gathering fuel and water, and making the economy subject to the vagaries of the world markets: prices vary quite a bit more than yield does, even with all the droughts, floods and locusts. It undermines national food security and makes governments vulnerable to blackmail.

          But development is not a single path. Rather it is a branching trajectory with crossroads where choices are made according to for whose benefit development is conducted and who is in charge of making the choices.

          I have had the privilege of being a participant/observer in Cuban development.  There there is a conscious strategy of guiding the use of resources and the priorities of research toward improving people’s lives in the present and future rather than in rushing for growth per se in the hope that some benefits will trickle down. It shows up many characteristics of health, welfare, education, environmental protection, culture and agriculture. For instance figure 1 shows [ inserts here from IMR/GDP, educ, etc.]

          The features of  Cuban agricultural development include the following:


          Much of this approach to agriculture is familiar to people at this meeting. Organic farming, urban agriculture, natural pest management are spreading. But very slowly, against the resistance and the hype of the producers of chemical inputs and genetically engineered seed varieties. There is a different quality to the debates around ecology in a capitalist country, where scientific disputes are often surrogates for clashing interests, and the conflicts we had in Cuba that involved only the confrontation of honest opinions. This doesn’t mean it was easy. It was necessary to confront the traditional socialist admiration for “progress”, the dismissal of ecology as a sentimental looking backwards to a golden age that never was. This involved debate about the nature of science, its dual role as the generic unfolding of human knowledge as we engage with the natural world in more and more ways, and the specific products of a knowledge industry that is increasingly concerned with inventing commodities. It involved arguing against an inordinate deference toward “modern” science, but without falling into intellectual isolationism or xenophobia. But in the end a holistic, dialectical understanding both of science and of agriculture is prevailing and Cuba is embarking on an ecological pathway of development.

          Sustainable development encompasses all kinds of land use, not just agricultural. Reforestation and a graded system of controlled land use from fully protected natural areas, national parks and forests to extractive preserves, reforestation of river banks, and special programs for fragile habitats are needed for a coherent program. Sustainable development includes not only the sustainability of the soil and fauna but also of the rural population and its social fabric,  a collective political life that combines a maximum of local self-determination with integration at regional and higher levels where social and ecological geography require it.

          Throughout the world, there is a continuous rural-urban migration and an aging rural population. In the United States the growing domination of agriculture by the input-producing companies and the purchasers of produce have reduced most farming to a marginal existence, contribution some 10% of the value added in food production under specifications set by the MacDonalds, Perdues, and other corporate consumers. And where farming declines so do the rural towns, train service, medical care and other amenitites. In many places in the world this migration  is accelerated by the impoverishment and displacement  of the rural population. This in turn is increased in part by free trade agreements that allow the dumping of corporate-produced imports at prices the farmers cannot match. In fact, the crucial missing article in any immigration law in the US should be the repeal of NAFTA. Another stimulus to the abandonment of the countryside is oil and mineral extraction which pollutes the environment and increases erosion. But even without these pushes there is the pull of the cities, the attraction of access to all sorts of urban delights. Where the rural-urban gap in health, educational and social-cultural facilities is less extreme the process is slower. Havana has managed to remain at around 2 million people in a country of 11 million in part because of the universalization of free and accessible health care, education, and access to cultural resources. And measures to reduce the rural-urban income gap are needed to make rural life sustainable.

          All of these diverse measures—production owned by the people and engaged in to meet peoples’ needs rather maximum profits; food, health care and education as human rights rather than purchasable privileges;  holistic development strategy that integrates economic, social, and ecological requirements; research directed toward improving people’s lives; pooling the collective intelligence to solve shared problems; long term vision of a sustainable landscape; are separately attractive as alternatives to the chaotic economic growth and declining equity and quality of life of our present arrangements and are represented in movements for ecological agriculture, health care for all, environmental justice, safe and secure employment. When put all together however they may be frightening, because that is what we mean by socialism.
























































































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    Then she also take a picture of Zhang Lou chest hair on Twitter, and write the declaration of "I love fashion"

Reader Comments (1)

In the youtube video of Colleen Patrick-Goudreau , "Excusi-tarian to Vegan,"
we learn the myths our culture has been fed over centuries, founded on religious and social fraud, that have led to our species becoming an anomaly of sorts, an "Unnatural Order," as we also can read in the book by Jim Mason, of the same title.

We have become , in my view, and I hate these words that sadly seem to fit, freaks of nature.
Yes, when herbivores with intellect and will, become carnivores because our species manipulates itself for power and economics, measured by the same stick, our behaviors are "stereotypic," or unnatural. When mother pigs are confined in tiny barren 2x7' gestation crates, only leaving those harsh and cruel spaces for re-impregnation and birth, to then have HER babies abducted( and I hope anyone reading this thinks deeply about my use of that appropriate word)she often exhibits abnormal behaviors such as biting the bars, bobbing her body back and forth, and other stereotypic and unnatural behaviors in her insanity of confinement and theft of her young.

Hens confined in horrific "battery cages" ( reminds me of assault and battery )are debeaked as they peck one another as it is their natural behavior in their natural environment, outdoors, to peck, scratch and preen. THis of course, in these cruel confinement cages, is not possible.

Humans, natural herbivores ( read Dr. Milton Mills "Comparative Anatomy")behave in ways that manifest pathology as we pretend to be powerful carnivores, top of the food chain, rulers of nature, rather than our rightful place as co-existing and respecting the world around us. Our conquering hubris and anthropocentrism is at the root of centuries of war, violence against our own, and more currently, the violent behaviors expressed through-out every level of human society.
The world of vegan, that is adopting our natural plant centered diet, as many thankfully are choosing, would purge our organs of added endocrine disrupting hormones found in every single female and male animal consumed, the cortisol being consumed from the stress and trauma every animal experiences at time of slaughter. Importantly, the NUTRIENTS we need from plants, need NOT be consumed with a vector that makes it much harder to absorb those nutrients those animals consumed plants to obtain. In short, we are frauds, living in the midst of lethal pretense that serves agribusiness and the medical industrial complex that grew up around humans eating a diet of death and organ failure. Fish too, got their omega's originally from algae and phytoplankton, now under threat from yet another human behavior that is causing the life support systems in the oceans to decline. What humans need is to stop consuming a diet that we've been manipulated and assimilated to consume, while transforming government to abolish massive spending on institutions such as USDA, NIH, and other massive government agencies all founded on lies and pretense. Our HEALTH INSURANCE is in all the books by medical doctors whom use the prescription of plant centered, whole food life styles, to reverse and CURE chronic diet related organ failure....It really is that simple.

November 3, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterLaura Slitt

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