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good conversation TP -- as you say there is a surprisingly wide realm of agreement, so I'll focus on the central issue of where we invest our optimisms and our pessimisms.

one thing I don't understand is what is so wrong with a world of locally-grown vegetables :-)  they taste better, are fresher, are more nutritious and cost less (i.e. their EROEI actually makes a kind of sense) -- what more is needed?  only the fossil-fuel industry, food processors, marketeers and other middlemen (the unproductive sector) benefit from the dysfunction that is our delocalised industrial food system.  suggested intro reading:  The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan.  

and then of course intensive polyculture is far more efficient in terms of food calories produced per acre and per gallon of water than industrial farming, surely a very important factor given current population, loss of arable land, and water contamination and drawdown.  I consider local vegetables, sustainably grown by small-scale polyculture, far from an impractical or fuzzy or sentimental proposition.   it's an extremely sensible, hard-headed and practical proposition -- far saner and more realistic than the truly warped and twisted dysvalues and dysfunctions of corporate industrial ag.  and it can be done and is being done today, without having to wait for miracle technologies.  it is being done now in real time, at Polyface Farm by a conservative Christian/libertarian farm family, it is being done throughout Cuba by mobilised citizens of a socialist nation, it is being done in Pasadena in a suburb by "LA liberals," in Pittsburgh in abandoned urban lots by low-income social justice organisers.  there's nothing sentimental or impractical about something that is already working.  no, imho it is the bizarre fictions of finance capitalism and its fantasies about free lunches and fairytale rates of return that are "sentimental" in the sense of reflecting wishful thinking rather than biological, chemical, and thermodynamic realities.

anyway, I think for shared perspective I'd earnestly suggest a read of Hornborg The Power of the Machine ... for an imho compelling analysis of why pessimism about industrial (C19 and its lineal descendants) technology is not merely a pessimism about human nature per se but a pessimism about the technology itself.  Hornborg makes a good case for the industrial/Cartesian paradigm (and its associated justificatory ideology, freemarketism) as inherently productive of intensifying inequalities and accelerating resource destruction. in other words, the technology shapes the behaviour and the culture, not just the other way around.  what this means is that the technomanagerial approach and the heavy industrial tech it relies on cannot be fixed.  it is what it is and it works the way it works, just like a shark or a virus.  a whole different approach is required to stop the ungoverned feedback loop of more resource destruction leading to more profits, which at each iteration, converted into the fiction of generic money (fungible and infinitely mobile) enable even more resource destruction, and so on.

so I have to ask, why do we require "enormously more powerful technologies"?  [except, of course, to remedy the damage done by previous generations of "enormously more powerful technologies"... and that's another amplifying feedback spiral into disaster.]  what we require, as human beings, is air, clean water, food, shelter, security of our persons from violence and humiliation, a degree of autonomy, community and a role in it, a sense of meaning or purpose, art and culture, some cultural mediation of brute ranking and inequality, a sense of continuity and hope for our offspring.  industrialism  (communist or capitalist) and "development" have by and large undermined these qualities for 9/10 of the human race with their (literally) powerful technologies -- technologies which amplify the power of core elites to appropriate time, space and resources from the peripheries.  those things -- time, space, and resources -- have been subtracted  from the lives of real people, who as a result live without some subset of the requirements listed above, with a diminishing quality of life.  a "world of local vegetables" would, for the majority of humanity, result in a higher quality of life, greater security, less malnutrition and disease, more autonomy, etc.

all these processes of accumulation and dispossession can occur in the absence of heavy industrial technology -- in antiquity for example;  but the "efficiencies" of the fossil-based technology enable them to happen at ever-greater speed and on an ever-greater scale.  when we say "more powerful" technologies we generally mean technologies that could compress time, appropriate space, and convert resources on an even greater scale -- more of the same, in other words.  if the patient is anaemic, we'll still prescribe cupping :-)

how can more powerful technologies improve this situation?  the increase in technomass can only come at the expense of biomass and the further impoverishment of the core.

so far I know of no high-tech "biotech" efforts that are not perched atop the same pyramid of inherently destabilising and runaway industrial tech, nor any which do not focus on destructive goals like the privatisation of whole genomes, the Enclosure of the cycle of seed to crop, and other attempts to subsume the biotic world into the control-metaphor of the machine.  the molecular-level work may look light in theory, but it's based on the same extreme resource pyramid of industrial tech that impoverishes the periphery more viciously with each passing decade.

by contrast a bin full of Hermetia turning hog shit into (a) high quality compost and (b) chicken food without my having to lift a finger except to check on their progress now and then -- now that's what I call biotechnology :-)  and any peasant farmer in the temperate latitudes could use this "technology", and perpetuate it, without incurring debt, sacrificing autonomy, or allowing the pillaging of local resources in exchange.  it is in fact not technology at all, but symbiosis, and there's the essential difference -- not encrusting the planet with an ever-thickening carapace of Dead Stuff, but exercising intelligence and ingenuity in establishing symbiosis and cooperation with biotic processes.

speaking of parachuting cats and institutional stupidity, I note that NZ govt is now engaged in a major biocriminal effort -- they've had the bright idea that to "control" the varroa mite in apiculture they will poison all feral bees.  this is the technomanagerial mindset at work.  this is insanity.  words fail me.

The difference between theory and practise in practise ...

by DeAnander (de_at_daclarke_dot_org) on Sun Oct 15th, 2006 at 04:47:35 PM EST
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