Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Jackson 3

Moving with an ideology?

Central to my presentation of Wwoof is that it is first and foremost a movement. Unencumbered by rules, structures and leaders Wwoof aims for long-term, multifaceted, sustainable socio-economic change rather than specific policies or even a specific ‘vision’ of the future. For me, this is the critical difference between an ‘organisation’ and a ‘movement’. While the former aims to gain acceptance of specific micro policies with a wider structured programme in mind, framed by a common ideology, the latter aims to group like minded people together in fluid, dynamic social and cultural bonds and aim to change the way we live, not just the rules we live by. A movement by definition is constantly changing, adapting, and evolving to reality but always moving in a certain cultural, if not political, direction. Can a movement then have an ideology in any meaningful sense?

As the term is commonly used in contemporary political and sociological literature ‘ideology’ means, a set of beliefs, concepts and ideas that can easily be codified into a logical, non-contradictory epistemological view. By this definition, Wwoof does not have an ideology and neither do most other ‘movements’ as they defy the idea of a codified programme. If we loosen the definition just slightly to remove the condition of codification I think we can easily make the case of a movement being able to have ideology, albeit a fluid ideology. In the case of Wwoof, while there is a very lose overall worldview; there are also several complementary ideologies, or a ‘multitude of ideologies’ (ref? Hardt). While I believe that its overall worldview, its way-of-life, has much to teach us, I will focus instead on the benefits of one of its many ideologies. I will argue that this ideology, or agenda could have very obvious and practical applications to more mainstream, ‘codified’ western organisation and their policy formulations.

Fittingly considering the discussion of the variety of Wwoof hosts earlier, the movement has a very wide range of opinions, views, approaches and overarching ‘ideologies’. The two most prominent of these common ideologies within the movement are biodynamics and permaculture. Both have been primarily associated with farming, with way of viewing mans relationship with the earth and developing this into more sustainable fashion. I will briefly address the farming side of these ideologies before moving onto the more socio-political aspects.

In 1924 a number of German farmers (most famously Philosopher and scientist Dr Rudolf Steiner) concerned with the signs of agriculture in decline of quality in favour of quantity developed the concept of biodynamics. Biodynamics (‘biological-dynamics) is a method of organic agriculture, which can be applied to any farm or horticultural enterprise, by following a series of practical steps. Aiming to build sustainable soil fertility biodynamic farming carefully tailors its approach and ideas to the particular property, in general however six steps would always be taken.

  1. Widening of the range of pasture species, and the planting of trees for multiple purposes. Pasture species and trees take varied and specific role within a particular eco-system, unlike in traditional farming systems a tree can be planted for increased soil fertility or shade, as well as for the production of fruit.

  2. The rotation of crops is thus planned to enhance soil fertility and to naturally control the spread of weeds and plant pests.

  3. Recycling of organic wastes where possible, by large scale composting.

  4. Changing from chemical pest control to prevention strategies based on good plant and animal nutrition.

  5. The use of biodynamic sprays to stimulate biological activity in the soil and improve the retention of nutrients, such as animal wastes.

  6. Stocking with several different species to vary grazing patterns and reduce pasture borne parasites.

Biodynamics is a systems based approach to farming, as the above points demonstrate it views the farm (or horticultural enterprise) as a living whole, in which each farm activity affects the others. Management is thus based on the farmer’s own careful observation of the particular land and its eco system, sometimes over several years before planting at all, as well as the results of tests and analyses. This leads to a modern approach to farming in which traditional long forgotten farming practices and knowledge experience a long over due renewal. The advantages of this approach to the farmer are numerous, because biodynamics uses very limited external inputs, and reuses most on farm waste; it has a low impact on the environment. It provides an economical way of farming in which most of the costs are met at the time they are incurred, arguably offering a solution to the conflict between economics and the environment. Flavour and keeping quality of the foods, lustre and comfort of fibres provoke favourable comments from consumers, looking out for the internationally famous trademark DEMETER, assuring the buyer that the produce is originally grown. (NZ Wwoof book). This approach has obvious advantages to the small-scale farmer, local community group, or Wwoof family, both in terms of economics and sustainability of the venture. The claim to have solved the conflict between economics and environment, simplistic as it may seems, points to some of the wider possible applications of the logic behind these to the wider public policy. It will be further argued later that an approach emphasising long-term observation, dynamic and practical consideration of specific issues, and retention of resources within the local system goes a long way to practical explaining how we can choose to put the environment first while still having a thriving economically.

It is the second main ideological group, permaculture, which is of most interest to this discussion. As its name suggests permaculture is all about making things that are permanent rather than temporary, long-term and sustainable. Permaculture aims to bring about a form of ‘permanent agriculture’, using many of the same traditional farming methods as biodynamics, such as the systems approach, economical view of resources and recycling. The main distinctive feature of permaculture’s approach to farming techniques is planning and design on a wide range of scales. Further to the ideology of biodynamics, permaculturalists believe that mainstream farming’s central mistake has been a lack of design as expansion of society has developed the necessity of mass farming. While permaculture has thus far been mostly associated with small scale ‘communities’, it is not limited to these. Permaculture does not represent a simple zero-sum decision between main steam society and withdrawing to a simpler, rural life. Far from it permaculture has aimed from the beginning to influence and inform mass agriculture.

'Civilised man has marched across the face of the earth and left a desert in his footprints.' (Carter and Dale, Topsoil and Civilization, p.6)

Permaculture was originally based on the idea that today, worldwide, on land once rich with natural vegetation, we see deserts denuded of their topsoil, deserts of salt-encrusted soil from years of irrigation, deserts due to widespread deforestation having altered the regional climate (Permaculture website). Agriculture, from its invention and reinvention from some 10,000 years ago onwards, has generally involved a crude process of clearing the wilderness and establishing a cycle of digging or ploughing, then seeding with a few useful species, primarily grasses, then harvesting the crop to feed humans and livestock - and the cycle begins again year on year until the land is exhausted - after which a new area of wilderness is cleared. Perhaps humans devised this system after surviving for a million years or so by hunting and gathering, and learning that regular firing of the undergrowth encouraged fresh sprouting pioneer species which were more nutritious for people and the grazing herds we hunted than did the stable, mature forest.

The solution to this critical flaw, from a permaculture perspective, is to introduce design into agriculture in order to create permanent high-yielding agricultural ecosystems, so that humans can thrive on as little land as possible, thus leaving as much land as possible as wilderness, if necessary helping the wilderness re-establish itself. In order to implement this global vision, we need local solutions, because every place on earth is different in local climate, landform, soils, and the combinations of species, which will thrive. Not only does the land and its potential vary from place to place, but also so do the people vary in their needs and preferences and their capacities. Every place and community requires its own particular design. A permaculture-designed farm will take the practical operations of the day-to-day runnings of the farm into account by planning the farm into zones of activity. In Zone A, for example, you would have things you need every day access to, such as your house, water supply and chickens and so on then in Zone B you might have fruit trees and seasonal crops that you need to visit ant much less frequent intervals. In this way the farm is set up to work with a positive time-motion balance, maximising the energy you have to put into your daily work. This is but one example of a feature of permaculture that plans a system to be sustainable. Hence at the local level, permaculture designers often refer to permaculture as being about designing for 'permanent culture'. This is not all about local farming however and the global vision can be lost sight of in the nitty-gritty of 'permanent culture' designing for local sustainability. But the vision is vital and can inspire us to keep going in the face of obstruction and apathy (


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