Subtle Agroecologies
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Subtle Agroecologies

Farming With the Hidden Half of Nature

Julia Wright, Julia Wright

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eBook - ePub

Subtle Agroecologies

Farming With the Hidden Half of Nature

Julia Wright, Julia Wright

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This book is about the invisible or subtle nature of food and farming, and also about the nature of existence. Everything that we know (and do not know) about the physical world has a subtle counterpart which has been scarcely considered in modernist farming practice and research. If you think this book isn't for you, if it appears more important to attend to the pressing physical challenges the world is facing before having the luxury of turning to such subtleties, then think again. For it could be precisely this worldview – the one prioritises the physical-material dimension of reality - that helped get us into this situation in the first place. Perhaps we need a different worldview to get us out?

This book makes a foundational contribution to the discipline of Subtle Agroecologies, a nexus of indigenous epistemologies, multidisciplinary advances in wave-based and ethereal studies, and the science of sustainable agriculture. Not a farming system in itself, Subtle Agroecologies superimposes a non-material dimension upon existing, materially-based agroecological farming systems. Bringing together 43 authors from 12 countries and five continents, from the natural and social sciences as well as the arts and humanities, this multi-contributed book introduces the discipline, explaining its relevance and potential contribution to the field of Agroecology.

Research into Subtle Agroecologies may be described as the systematic study of the nature of the invisible world as it relates to the practice of agriculture, and to do this through adapting and innovating with research methods, in particular with those of a more embodied nature, with the overall purpose of bringing and maintaining balance and harmony. Such research is an open-minded inquiry, its grounding being the lived experiences of humans working on, and with, the land over several thousand years to the present. By reclaiming and reinterpreting the perennial relationship between humans and nature, the implications would revolutionise agriculture, heralding a new wave of more sustainable farming techniques, changing our whole relationship with nature to one of real collaboration rather than control, and ultimately transforming ourselves.

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CRC Press

Section 1

Transformative Epistemological, Philosophical and Theoretical Frameworks

1 Re-Enchanting Agriculture

Farming with the Hidden Half of Nature

Julia Wright
Coventry University
DOI: 10.1201/9780429440939-2


  1. Prelude: Something Happened in a Hot Tent in Telangana
  2. Introduction: The Stranglehold of the Industrial Worldview
  3. Towards Understanding the Cognitive Factors behind the Industrial Worldview
  4. The Blind Spot of Contemporary, Ecologically Based Farming Systems
    1. Harmony and Balance: The Indigenous Relationship of People, Land and Nature
    2. Do Ecologically Based Farming Systems Fully Embrace Indigenous Praxis?
  5. Introducing Subtle Agroecologies: Farming with the Hidden Half of Nature
    1. The State-of-the Art of Subtle Agroecologies
    2. Towards a Definition of Subtle Agroecologies
  6. Conclusion
  7. Acknowledgements
  8. References

Prelude: Something Happened in a Hot Tent in Telangana

It looked unlikely that anyone was going to come to the workshop. Buses had jolted us for three hours from the conference centre in Hyderabad to a farm in the Telangana hinterland, land that was dry and dusty those November days and adjacent to a river where signs warned to ‘beware of crocodiles’. Now all were busy pitching their tents and queuing for some late lunch that hot afternoon. Thus was the transition from the first formal part of the 13th International Permaculture Conference, in India, at which government ministers and keynote speakers had held forth, to the more informal and interactive, tented Convergence, and we were all tired and drowsy. A volunteer led me to the tent where I was scheduled to give the workshop one of seven rectangular structures arranged in a semicircle to one side of the encampment and adorned with deep gold and purple bunting. It wasn’t only the heat and fatigue that were serving as potential deterrents. ‘Quantum-inspired agriculture: is it time for permaculturalists to embrace the invisible?’ was the title of the workshop, and I was mindful that (the late) Bill Mollison, the co-founder of permaculture, had stressed many times, and most vehemently, that belief systems, or ‘woo-woo’ as he and many practitioners put it, should be kept out of permaculture.
As I have often been accused of lacking that set of credulity, mystification, modern myth and hogwash that passes today for New Age Spirituality, I cheerfully plead guilty. Unqualified belief, of any breed, dis-empowers any individuals by restricting their information. Thus, permaculture is not biodynamics, nor does it deal in fairies, devas, elves, after-life, apparitions or phenomena not verifiable by every person from their own experience, or making their own experiments. We permaculture teachers seek to empower any person by practical model-making and applied work, or data based on verifiable investigations. This scepticism of mine extends to religious and political party ideologies.
Mollison (1996: 623)
A smattering of people wandered into the tent, then a few more, until almost all the fold-up seats were taken. Feeling relieved at the numbers, I made a start. A few more people turned up, filing in around the edges, then more and I encouraged them to fill the spaces at the front where they sat around my feet till I was confined to one spot. Then more formed an outer ring, and still more who couldn’t squash into the tent and so grouped around the open entrance or peered in through the gaps between the flimsy tent walls and the canopy. Engulfed in a sea of expectant, bright-eyed faces, my presentation started with a question, inspired by developments over the last century in quantum science and the underlying wave-based nature of reality. What else could be at play outside of the small percentage of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye? Indigenous, Majority World cultures are characterised by their holistic worldviews about the nature of reality, and these are reflected in their farming practices. Their interactive relationships with invisible dimensions recognise the existence of spirit, /consciousness and the other-than-human. Yet even though the founding fathers of quantum science were openly influenced and inspired by such worldviews and especially those of the Vedic tradition, modern science is ill-equipped to properly explore these dimensions in agriculture, limited as it is by its own adherence to a particular belief system, one which is underpinned by reductionism and physicalism.
With audience attention still strong, and sensitive to the customary reticence to share on this subject in public, each person was invited to turn to her or his neighbour and share a story or personal experience concerning the hidden half of nature. With just a few exceptions, a multitude of conversations erupted, so animated that the speaker in the neighbouring tent’s (rather empty) workshop came to inspect. And then, once people realised that they were in a safe space and wouldn’t be laughed at or ridiculed, and that they weren’t alone in their experiences, stories began to be shared with the group. The atmosphere was one of vibrant relief; something important had happened on that previously worn-out afternoon in the hot tent in Telangana.

Introduction: The Stranglehold of the Industrial Worldview

Contemporary, ecologically based farming approaches (i.e. agroecology and what may be considered as subcategories - organic and biodynamic farming, and permaculture) have met with strong opposition since they arose over the last century as a conscious effort to divert from the path mapped by the industrial and Green Revolution models (Conford, 2002). Why should something as simple as the desire to caringly produce nutritious foods touch upon such a raw nerve? Exploring this question as part of her doctoral studies in Cuba in the late 1990s, the author asked over 400 of the country’s farmers, researchers and government officials why they had not shifted wholescale to more ecological farming. After all, during this period of tough US sanctions and economic instability, several conducive factors were in place: the scant access to agrochemicals and fuel to drive heavy machinery, a plentiful labour supply, relatively widespread knowledge of ecologically based agriculture, and a pro-social politics in favour of human health. Curiously though, the majority of responses to this question fell into either of two categories: those who had not shifted to more ecological farming because they were fearful of losing control – be it over smallholder farmers, specific pests and diseases or nature in general; and those who had not shifted because they were fearful of not having enough, whether it be of chemical inputs, crop yields, fuel or food (Wright, 2009). Such fears were unsurprising given Cuba’s economic vulnerability after the collapse of the Soviet Union, yet they revealed themselves to be unfounded when evaluated against the scientific and practitioner evidence available, and rather were based on myths or misperceptions around the performance of ecologically based farming (2009: 209, 237). For example, for every farmer who was adamant that the only way to control the maize corn stalk borer was through the application of a chemical control, another farmer down the road would be successfully using a biological control method for the same problem, and this backed up by research data. Fear rather than evidence, the study concluded, was a major driver of Cuba’s agricultural strategy, and this in a country with no private sector or corporate interests to champion the industrialised farming approach that prevailed. What the country did have, enduring from its pre-Revolutionary, colonial period and later imported from its Soviet comrades in the 1960s to 1980s, was a heavily industrialised conceptualisation or worldview of agriculture, based on a belief in technological expertise which manifested through the design of large-scale monocultures, high levels of specialisation and mechanisation, and reliance on chemical inputs (Mesa-Lago, 1998; Sinclair and Thompson, 2001; Wright, 2009).
In non-socialist regimes, similar fear-based insecurities around a perceived lack of control or of survival necessities are identified as contributing to the relentless drive of agribusiness (Clunies-Ross and Hildyard, 2013). Whether restocking food reserves in post-Second World War Europe (Conford, 2001) or averting food insecurity in the Global South by rolling out Green Revolution technological packages (Sonnenfeld, 1992), this form of agriculture, with its top-down approach, obsessive focus on narrow goals, quick results and lack of consideration of broader impacts, could at best be seen as a short-term, emergency strategy.1 So, 70 years on, why are we still farming as if in an emergency? Vorley (2003) and others (e.g. Elder and Dauvergne, 2015; IPES-Food, 2016; Lang, 2004) attribute this stagnation or stranglehold to the persisting political power of agribusiness to maintain industrialised production systems in order to continue expanding sales, lowering production costs and increasing profits. Yet the previously described experience of Cuba indicates that we need to look beyond or behind agribusiness and to the industrialised worldview from whence these behaviours manifest. For it is out of this worldview that we are frequently reminded of the overriding material urgency of ‘feeding the world’ at the expense of mainstreaming more sustainable, ecologically based farming approaches (e.g., by AGRA (2016), Goulding et al. (2011) and Rickard (2019)). This perspective continues to be propounded in the face of clear and growing evidence that agroecological farming systems can better achieve the more egalitarian objective of ‘enabling the peoples of the world to feed themselves’, as well as ensuring the health of our life support systems (Ponisio and Erlich, 2016). As the pioneering environmental philosopher Callicott (1990: 270) succinctly explains with regard to the industrial-scientific worldview:
Notoriously it is not working, at least not sustainably and it is based on a bankrupt metaphysics, a worldview that has not sustained critical scrutiny and that is in fact, dead in pure science even though it lives on in applied science…soil compaction, erosion and the loss of fertility, the unforeseen exhaustion of fossil fuels and fossil waters, agrochemical pollution of air, surface and ground waters; and food itself; cyclic outbreaks of pests and the ensuing dialectic of ever more toxic and intensively applied pesticides; the loss of genetic diversity and the loss of wild ancestors and relatives of our cultivars; rural depopulation and disruption of rural patterns of life; the corollary loss of centuries of transmitted agricultural experience and knowledge, the dessication, in short, of the culture of agriculture; concentration of land ownership and the proletarisation of farm labor…all bode ill for the sustainability of modern agriculture.
1 Underlying these altruistic motives were political and economic drivers. In Europe, ammonium nitrate was lucratively repurposed as a fertiliser after WW2 (­Conford, 2020), and the rolling out of Green Revolution technologies was seen as a means to quell political unrest during the Cold War period as well as being another lucrative venture for the pharmaceutical industry (­Cotter, 2003).

Towards Understanding the Cognitive Factors behind the Industrial Worldview

Which other living creatures soil their own living spaces, food supplies and life support systems? Environmentalist David Orr, who proposed the term ‘ecological literacy’ as the ability to understand the natural systems that make life on earth possible, explains the need to recognise the relationship between the disorder of ecosystems and a prior disorder of mind (Orr, 1991). Similarly, Roszak (1992) believes that the environmental crisis is rooted in the extreme disturbance of a part of human consciousness. Yet the views of Orr, Roszak and other ecopsychologists who connect the way we treat nature as a reflection of our own mental states have been more widely accepted by environmental scholars (e.g. see Joanna Macy’s ‘Work That Reconnects’ (Macy and Brown, 2014)) than by those in agricultural disciplines. (One early exception was social ecologist Stuart Hill who, with reference to agriculture in the Canadian Prairies, linked ecological with psychological prerequisites and identified ‘distressed human states’ as resulting in unsustainable farming (1991: 34)). The very act of separating farming from the environment is arguably a manifestation of such a disorder.
This disorder had been spotted long before by people from non-Western cultures. Indigenous American peoples used the term ‘wetiko’ (from the Cree First Nation) to describe the mentality of the arriving colonisers, defined as a type of cannibal sickness or mind-virus infecting people with symptoms such as greed, ambition, materialism, arrogance or a split personality (Forbes, 2011). In his book on the same subject, journalist Paul Levy (2013) draws on works from Jungian psychology as well as spiritual wisdom traditions to explain how this mind-virus operates at a covert level through our unconscious blind spots, rendering us oblivious to our own madness and compelling us to act against our own best interests.
A more in-depth understanding of this condition has been provided by acclaimed scholar and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist. McGilchrist’s treatise (The Master and his Emissary: the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, 2019) concer...