Everything Grows, Anything Goes, Everyone Blows: some thoughts on Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden

Well, an air of normality has returned to us here at Small Farm Future. A combination of sunny weather and endless meals of Clem’s slug stew have put those pesky molluscs on the back foot and enabled us to get some plants established at last. The money I paid for the potato planter has returned to me (though not, alas, the planter: now I know what people on ebay mean by the term ‘time waster’). And the hordes of permaculturists who were commenting on this blog a week or two ago seem to have departed to graze on other pastures. So what do we do now? Well, we go on, ploughing our lonely furrow.

My next few posts, then, are concerned as promised with the ‘balance of nature’ as applied to agriculture, which I briefly debated with Andy McGuire in response to some blog posts of his on this topic. As a preamble, I’m going to look specifically in this post at Emma Marris’s book Rambunctious Garden1, which touches directly on this issue, and which Andy cites in his posts.

I have to admit that I approached the book with some trepidation: it has an endorsement on the dust jacket from celebrity eco-panglossian Stewart Brand, and has also been enthusiastically commended by other foot soldiers from that warlike tribe. The dust jacket hails the book for its ‘optimism’ (usually a bad sign – I’ll post something soon on the important difference between ‘optimism’ and ‘hope’).  And it seems to be rapidly becoming a touchstone work by people championing policies that I find questionable. But notwithstanding all that I enjoyed reading it and found a good deal of Marris’s analysis persuasive.

That analysis, in a nutshell, is that much ecological thinking and conservation work is based on the idea of restoring natural environments to some kind of baseline state of ‘balance’ which has been upset, typically by human activities of recent origin. But this is an impossible aspiration, first of all because the evidence suggests that human activities (and ‘human’ here may even refer to pre Homo sapiens species in our genus) have always and inextricably been associated with profound transformation of the natural world, and secondly because ecosystems are never in balance anyway but are always an unstable congeries of organisms buffeted by random events and destined not to endure. In this respect, Marris reprises a venerable argument in ecology between Clements (he of the ‘climax vegetation’ and ecosystems as ‘superorganisms’ school of thought) and Gleason (of the ecosystems as random or ‘stochastic’ agglomerations of individuals school).

Well, the Gleasonians seem to have the upper hand in ecology at the moment and one merit of Marris’s book is that she spells out the implications. These are, essentially, stop moralising about pristine ‘untouched’ wilderness and embrace anthropogenic effects.  Don’t get too het up about ‘invasive species’, let anthropogenic nature take its course, enjoy the buddleia and the sycamore, the novel juxtapositions of organisms in ‘self-willed land’ (an appealing term, but a pretty problematic one for a Gleasonian…). Indeed, given the randomness of natural ecosystem assembly, you may actually find that anthropogenic ecosystems perform better than their wild predecessors, as for example on Ascension Island where the monotonous plain of ferns preceding human agency has now been replaced by a fully functioning cloud forest.

In short, everything grows in the rambunctious garden, and we should let it – we must relinquish our human notions of pristine nature and natural balance.

I think I can live with most of that. It’s probably easier for those of us hailing from what certain Americans call ‘old Europe’, where we can’t even pretend to have any significant remaining pristine wilderness, and where there’s been no recent history of explosive human colonisation. Richard Mabey’s book The Unofficial Countryside2 laid out the same basic thesis for us quite some years ago, though it’s true that even here conservationists do fuss rather about ‘native’ species.

This ‘everything grows’ thesis represents the weak narrative of Marris’s book (not ‘weak’ in the sense that it’s a bad argument, but in the sense that it’s a less radical position). But she also articulates a stronger narrative, perhaps inevitably. For once you’ve kicked away the foundations of ‘balanced’ natural ecosystems, embracing the Anthropocene  and the patch-disturbing antics of its guest star Homo sapiens, it becomes a bit difficult to know where to stop. Nature has no ultimate goal, no telos, and humanity is a part of it – therefore if nature has no balance either, then really anything goes. There are no criteria for discriminating between appropriate and inappropriate human interventions in the world, a point made by ecologist Mark Schwartz, who Marris cites (p.80) as follows,

“Without a baseline we have no target. Without a target, every kind of management, including those that result in lost native species is arguably a success. I fear such success.”

Me too, Mark, me too. It’s an onerous business, playing god, and most gods with a successful long-term track record go about it by laying down some ground rules. Call it a covenant, if you will. And here Marris misses a trick by failing to engage with the import of religious traditions that have done this – “give up romantic notions of a stable Eden” she enjoins, without apparently realising that the lack of stability and the consequent difficulty humans face in making good choices is exactly the problem articulated in the Eden story, and the problem her own ‘anything goes’ analysis bequeaths us (this very point is further examined in my paper ‘Genesis and J. Baird Callicott: the land ethic revisited’). Although Marris clearly does want humans to make good decisions on behalf of the biosphere as a whole and not go charging around like a bull in a china shop just because we can, her ‘anything goes’ logic rather pulls the rug from under her feet in finding criteria with which to make those good decisions. Nor does she have a great deal to say about farming, surely the arena in which making these decisions vis-a-vis the wider biota is paramount.

Still, even though the ‘anything goes’ position is quite challenging to those of us who advocate small-scale, local, largely mixed organic farming, it does have its up side. For of course it blows out of the water the so called ‘land sparing – land sharing’ debate, which is often used to critique relatively low yielding organic farming for its potentially greater land take. If anything goes, if ‘self-willed’  (or any-willed) land has no intrinsic inferiority to ‘pristine wilderness’, then there’s no virtue in land sparing. As Marris puts it: “More than sickly ecosystems nursed by park rangers, novel ecosystems are really wild, self-willed land with lots of evolutionary potential” (p121). She later writes: “Don’t ignore green, growing land just because it isn’t your ideal native landscape. Protect it from development, even if it is just a “trash ecosystem”. Build your cities in tight and up high, and let the scenery take over the suburbs” (p170).

Oh, hang on a minute. That last bit doesn’t sound much like a land sharing argument! And come to think of it, counterposing ‘sickly’ wilderness with ‘really wild, self-willed land’ doesn’t look like a very impressive effort at getting the anthropocentric moralising out of ecology. How did we get from ‘anything goes’ to ‘everyone blows’, an argument for cleansing the countryside of people and packing them tight in cities (whose ecological credentials, as I’ve argued here and here, are usually assumed rather than proven)? Now, I’m not given to conspiracy theories, but Marris’s ‘everyone blows’ conclusion seems to come out of nowhere, unless perhaps she’s playing a fiddle for the eco-panglossians, amongst whom the likes of Stewart Brand (he of the dust jacket endorsement) are happy to dismiss the rural peasant life of something like a third of the global population as, quite simply, ‘over’ on the basis of no significant evidence whatsoever.

Nope, give me anything goes over everyone blows. And give me everything grows over anything goes. For indeed I think that reports of the balance of nature’s death are somewhat exaggerated. I’ll say more about why in my next post – essentially that Clements versus Gleason isn’t quite the polar opposition it’s sometimes painted, and that too singular a focus on species-level dynamics is no less incomplete than too singular a focus on ecosystem-level dynamics. In fact, Marris herself frequently invokes notions of ecosystem ‘balance’, as when she argues that there’s a tradeoff between reproductive success and stress tolerance which is likely to enable native species to claw back niches from invasive exotics in the long-term.

You might reasonably ask how commonly she invokes such notions. But then I might reasonably ask for a bit more quantification of this sort in her own analysis. As a not terribly quantitatively-oriented social scientist by training, my own publications, like Marris’s, are full of phrases like ‘as many analysts have argued…’ or ‘the research tends to suggest…’, but on the rare occasions I’ve submitted papers to more technically-oriented journals I’ve generally been asked to sharpen up my act and provide a bit more quantitative precision. Take the Ascension Island example. Given that it’s pretty hard to find land anywhere on the planet quite as remote from other land masses as this speck in the South Atlantic, I don’t find the ‘stochasticity’ of its native flora and the possibilities for ‘improving it’ too surprising. But if you were to survey all the floras of the world and assess them against the same yardstick, how many of them would appear equally ‘improvable’ by human agency? Not so many, I suspect – and that’s before we even get into the debate about what ‘improvement’ really means. Much the same points can be made about exotics/invasives.

Ah well – I like people who stick their necks out and try to nail an interesting argument rather than getting too bogged down in over-cautious evidence-weighing, so long as they engage politely with other views and follow the basic rules of analysis. In that respect, I welcome Marris’s book. But its talk of ‘improvement’ does ring a few alarm bells, for the same reasons I touched on recently when I talked about the legacy of ideologies of agrarian ‘improvement’. My own writing has sometimes been accused of being ‘ideological’, which I’m fairly comfortable with since I don’t believe non-ideological writing is possible in the main. The danger of supposing that it is is in thinking that one’s superior contemporary insight can replace the error of past scientific misunderstandings – now revealed as contaminated by the political concerns of their day – with the clear-sighted truth of the present.

You don’t need to be a genius to see the trap awaiting there, especially in a book like Marris’s which places such a heavy political accent on certain ecological metaphors while seeking to overcome others. And indeed, just occasionally as I read, I fancied I saw a fugitive John Locke, that pioneering agricultural improver and proto-panglossian champion of human overcoming, disappearing amongst the written words as he whispered his excoriations of wilderness and waste into Marris’s ear. For I ask whether in the wild woods and uncultivated waste of America left to nature, without any improvement, tillage or husbandry, a thousand acres will yield the needy and wretched inhabitants as many conveniences of life as ten acres of equally fertile land do in Devonshire where they are well cultivated?3

And to cap it all, there’s that darned dust jacket quotation from Stewart Brand…



1. Marris, E. (2011) Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, Bloomsbury.

2. Mabey, R. (1973) The Unofficial Countryside, Little Toller.

3. Locke, J. (1689) Two Treatises of Government, II, 37.

26 thoughts on “Everything Grows, Anything Goes, Everyone Blows: some thoughts on Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden

  1. Chris, I’m interested that you mentioned Mabey’s /Unofficial Countryside/. Have you also read the late Oliver Gilbert’s /The Ecology of Urban Habitats/ – now out of print but available online – or from me if I can find my copy? He deals with the fascination on the part of urban ecologists with native species and the preservation or attempted recreation of rural ecosystems within urban areas. By contrast he celebrates urban ecosystems, which contain a mix of native and exotic species (and varieties) and thus are unique systems which don’t occur anywhere else on earth. In particular he coined the name ‘urban commons’ for what is more often called waste land and recorded the distinctive path of succession which it passes through, from demolition onwards.

    Until fairly recently I felt this was the appropriate attitude to urban ecosystems, while maintaining native purity and the ideal of the semi-natural ecosystem in rural areas. But, even if this distinction ever had a real validity, climate change has made it redundant. Just as the farily recent realisation that there’s no such thing as wilderness – hence the introduction of the inelegant ‘self-willed’, a highly dubious concept – we now have to ask whether the concepts of native and semi-natural have any real utility in view of the changes which are already happening and will accellerate. Personally I think that if they still do they won’t for much longer.

    So how do we judge the value of an ecosystem? I may have missed it but this is something I feel is missing from your post. What is a ‘good’ ecosystem and what’s a ‘bad’ one? The word ‘biodiversity’ pops straight into my mind as the yardstick. I could probably justify that if I put my shoulder to the wheel. But what about ‘resilience’, whatever we mean by that? Or some other criterion? Ecosytem services is another possibility, albeit totally anthropocentric. And why should we care at all?

    All this discussion of ecosystems, even from the ‘anything goes’ standpoint, only has a meaning if we have an idea of what we’d like to see and what we wouldn’t. Nature doesn’t have a /telos/ but we do, otherwise we wouldn’t be bothering to write this stuff.

    Best wishes, Patrick

  2. Hi Patrick, no I’ve not read the Gilbert book, but I’ve heard of it – another one for the in tray perhaps…

    “Nature doesn’t have a /telos/ but we do, otherwise we wouldn’t be bothering to write this stuff.”

    Yes, I think that’s spot on – and so much of the debates we have about ‘the environment’ or ecology in which we impute various characteristics to the non-human world strike me as being essentially political and economic debates about the different sorts of world that different people want to live in, which are displaced onto our views of ‘nature’…perhaps implicitly to lend them greater credibility. I’m writing something for Permaculture Activist about this just at the moment.

    You’re right that I didn’t address how to judge the value of an ecosystem, partly because I plan to pick this up more directly in my next post. I think this is also missing from Marris’s book. It’s not so hard to kick down the notion of ecological ‘balance’ if you wish (though actually I think it’s harder than Marris supposes, which I’ll also come back to in the next post), but if you do so it’s all too easy to end up with the familiar eco-panglossian position of humans as overlords of nature, which I find problematic for all sorts of reasons regularly aired on this blog. I like the cautious approach of someone like Ford Denison, who makes the important point that ecosystems are not optimised by natural selection as rigorously as organisms are, but doesn’t then rush in to make all sorts of value judgements about ‘improving’ nature. However, I think humanity and individual humans do ultimately need to take a position on what we’d like to see, as you point out. Hmmm, I’ll have to muse on this some more and try to address it in my next post – which might be a while in coming as I’m busy currently anthropocentrising my own little ecosystem here in Frome!

  3. Slugs on their back foot… as opposed to?? But I do think it’s cute; the slugs being gastropods, or ‘stomach foot’. Is such merely another digression (for I am quite prone) – alas, a moment’s reconnaissance will illustrate that the moniker stomach foot was assigned when it appeared the little varmint was sliding along on its belly. But it’s not so.

    And it appears so much else is not what it first appears – or ends up being different depending upon who is doing the observing – or the context in which the observer finds herself. Imagine the proverbial Martian visiting our little blue marble and observing man. If this visit had been made more than 10,000 years ago and then again last week – with adequate records – we can imagine the Martian might score Homo sapiens as an invasive species, no? [Our intrepid Martian is obviously quite the ecologist 🙂 ] But if last week’s visit is our Martian’s first, and it has no archeological sophistication, it might score us as endemic in most habitats and invasive would not be an appropriate adjective. Context.

    This Martian watching is such fun… anyway, what do you suppose the Martian will make of Leaf-cutter ants? They are simultaneously hunter/gatherers, and farmers. And these everywhere endemic Homo sapiens? Likewise. Both appear quite preoccupied with Niche construction.

    So our Martian observes all these Earthly goings on quite objectively. It [just can’t bring myself to assign a gender] is from the outside itself and so long as it merely observes, does not experiment or intervene; it can rightly be considered an objective observer. Would it consider something it observes ‘unnatural’?? And for all the philosophers who are getting too uncomfortable with this, please, bear with – the projecting of human thoughts onto the poor Martian will subside eventually. On what grounds could the Martian categorize something here as not natural?

    So on what grounds do we go about categorizing things as not natural? Are we not ourselves ‘of nature’?? And what is all this about ‘playing God’?? If one is religious, then God is not to be ‘played’. And if one is not religious, or believes ‘God’ is merely the creation of a human mind… then what is there to say for ‘playing’ a figment of someone’s imagination? Idle distraction?

    Well, I should be going along now. Have to have a look at Ms Marris’ tome. Or maybe not. You’ve done a very nice job covering it. And I’m quite concerned by the subtitle… ‘Post Wild-World’ – so this little blue marble is no longer wild?? I guess I missed the memo.

    • Clem, thanks for pointing out my inappropriate use of the term ‘back foot’ to apply to my gastropod chums. But, hey it’s the start of the cricket season over here (the sport, that is, not the insect) and I think there’ll be a lot of back feet in play over here this summer.

      On the playing god metaphor, though, I’m sticking to my guns. I know it’s a bit of cliché, but I think it captures something important – although humans aren’t the only species to have dramatically altered planetary conditions, we’re probably the only species so far which knows we’re doing it and is able to make decisions about how or whether we should. That, I think, is where the comparison with gods is apt (and again, though I know I bang on about this, is referenced so beautifully in the Eden story), and where Patrick’s question about how we judge the value of an ecosystem bites.

      Thanks for your Martian story – it’s a nice device, and definitely worth a further probe into the implications one of these days.

      • The poor man now probably thinks our summer game involves slugs in some strange sort of idiosyncratic british way…..

        • Yep, poor man… way too accurate. Oh well.

          But I do have an image of how slugs might appreciate cricket over say, baseball. Pace of the game. But I suppose one can draw a link to our summer sport (baseball) as well… as when a runner steals a base he’ll frequently choose to slide headfirst on his belly – and apart from the speed it is quite slug like. And here in the States we keep a statistic for slugging percentage. So the slimy little critters pepper our culture as well.

          Now back to being poor. At least poorness is more sustainable.

      • My poking at the ‘playing God’ meme is not intended to permanently dissuade its use (though I suppose that’s not totally honest either) – so maybe a couple of thoughts may be in order.

        We commonly see ‘playing God’ used in the context of someone – a fellow human – doing something that in the past was superhuman… we hadn’t the technology or the knowledge to accomplish. Magic then would seem to be godlike in a sense. Tossing someone to the moon, live and bringing them home safe would likely have seemed a godlike feat to the Romans of the first century. And now that is so much ‘been there, done that’.

        But in other contexts we sometimes see life and death decisions be construed as playing God. Judges and Kings who have authority over others in capital matters is where I’m going here.

        But as our little marble gets ever smaller – in the ecological sense… we take on more and more the narrative that the whole planet is a Commons, and we should get on with the business of collaborating with ALL our planetary cousins in the project of protecting this Commons for posterity. And herein llays one of the difficulties for the playing God metaphor. Whose god, specifically, are we talking about? Does said god approve of our projecting our thinking on it’s way of being. Invoking god pesters atheists and agnostics. So, even though I’m generally a fan of cliché’s for their ability to quickly convey a standard meme this particular cliché seems to me at least to hurt almost as much as it helps.

        But you also point back to the piece you did on the Genesis narrative – one incidentally that I found very nicely done and even inspired me to get Caldicott’s book to dig a little further… and in the sense of that particular thought process I can warm to the playing God cliché because we have a specific god to consider, and a historical context to limit our imagination to.

        So I guess where I’m going here, the playing god cliché can have some value, but use it sparingly…

        • Yes, I take your point – I guess I was using the reference very much in the sense of the Genesis analysis, so with a more specific referent than the term usually implies. I agree that it can be a bit problematic…

  4. The environment I want is alley cropping agroforestry landscapes producing carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins, that are so sustainable they last forever, with – if you are meat minded – foraging areas with herb and clover mixes for animals mixed with a just and educated social system that makes by its very nature a sustainable level of population surrounded by and interspersed with wetlands and forest.

    Simple. Next!

    • I’ll second that. At least I think I will, mostly. The slightly less simple bit is persuading everyone else to go for the same vision…which I guess might involve plunging back into the awkward philosophising about how to judge the value of an ecosystem. Plus of course persuading people to stick with sustainability rather than growth…just a few more people…just a few more carbohydrate crops…etc. But yeah, I like the vision. I’ve been reading William Ophuls and John Vandermeer recently, who would probably be willing recruits to your cause.

      • Ophuls is certainly an interesting writer. Coincidentally, I’m reading his “Plato’s Revenge” this week. And found his slim volume “Immoderate Greatness” a powerful summary of our current predicament. .

        • ‘Plato’s Revenge’ looks like a pretty interesting book. Now if I could find a book store in the Knoxville area that has a copy… 🙂

          • Clem,
            Now, if my old alternative bookstore was still open…but I closed it in 1995.

            He is an interesting writer to be sure. What does it say when one of the first things you do with an author like him is read the descriptive bibliography?

        • Funny – I just read those two books about a month ago. Very interesting – hope to discuss them with you here soon!

        • Yep – I’ve just started reading his (co-authored) book ‘Nature’s Matrix’. Do you have any thoughts on him?

          • Can’t say I know him… though he’s almost a neighbor (U Michigan is just north of Toledo… if I were motivated I could run up to meet him for lunch and still make it home the same day)…

            But from your mention above I was curious and did a little search. There are a handful of John Vandermeers so I picked the one that seemed most likely based on topics here. He has a blog and from the little I read I was impressed. Certainly worth a little more of my time to dig somewhat deeper.

  5. Chris,
    The issue that I have with the writings and books of this ilk is that they do not address, or gloss over, the frequency at which human agency is now working on the biosphere. It is one thing to introduce invasive species at the speed of sail. It is another to do so in our 24/7 economy. Hell, I can’t catch a breath with the pace of change. Just imagine the problems with other flora and fauna?

    • Yes, fair point. I suppose the ‘anti-balance of nature’ crowd would argue that ecosystems are just random assemblages of organisms anyway, so the pace of change doesn’t really matter – you just get a faster turnover of the random assemblages. But the spectrum between perfect, determinate balance and complete stochasticity is pretty wide – taking an intermediate position could certainly suggest that the pace of change is an issue. I’ll try to come back to this point.

  6. Clem, I’ll book a future blog post to talk about him – I’m enjoying his ‘Nature’s Matrix’ book, though with a couple of reservations.

    And to carry over a discussion from Brian’s blog to mine, I was interested in your comment about people switching back to 2-4-D as a result of glyphosate tolerance. Pro agribusiness writers like Steve Savage are forever spinning a narrative of progress and saying that modern pesticides are much safer and used in much smaller doses than the ones back in the days of Rachel Carson et al. But from what you’re saying, it seems there may be a twist in that tale…?

    Also, apologies for not yet responding to you re your earlier queries…it’s still in the in tray.



    • There is indeed a twist (or perhaps several). Where to start??

      So Steve Savage is not entirely wrong to note the trend of progress toward safer chemicals. And 2,4-D itself is not as onerous a pesticide as the organophosphates, or even DDT which Ms Carson spent so much time discussing. The biggest nock on 2,4-D from my vantage point is the ease with which it will move offsite (drift, or vaporize and drift, from intended target). There has been some nice progress made in formulations that are less volatile and thus less prone to move off target. But why is this even relevant in the first place? Resistance. So here in the U.S. – especially in the South – there have been several instances of weeds evolving resistance to major herbicides. Roundup leads the parade, not as the first chemical to suffer this turnabout, but from its enormous market position and now enormous failure in some ecosystems. We’ve talked a bit about specific weed species here before – so lets focus on one slimy character: Palmer Amaranth. This little devil has evolved resistance to several different herbicide classes. It grows extremely fast, and can suffocate a soybean crop in short order. Nasty stuff. And imagine the unsuspecting grower who sprays his field as always – expecting the weeds will die… only to find later (and TOO late in many situations) that they haven’t.

      What to do? First, in a field as described above, one might just abandon the crop… but will still want to mow down the weeds so they can’t produce seed (saving tomorrow at the expense of today). But then what? There is a different chemical – glufosinate (also known as Liberty or Ignite)… and note its NOT glyphosate – or Roundup) that can be employed. It can be used in a very similar manner to Roundup – sprayed over the top of Liberty-Link soybeans. But it would be too foolish to sit back and expect this to be the final answer. Resistance to glufosinate is likely something we should begin to anticipate somewhere down the road.

      So – back to 2,4-D… and lets reintroduce dicamba while we’re at it. Both are relatively older chemicals that are making a comeback because of resistance and because there is now a resistance gene to the two which can be bred into our crop plants so the chemicals can be sprayed over the top to kill weeds and not the crop. A very nice backgrounder for this is available from Purdue University: https://www.extension.purdue.edu/extmedia/ID/ID-453-W.pdf

      So there are some bumps on the road – and I think Steve Savage will acknowledge this. There are some nice improvements in spraying technology that will allow growers and custom applicators to do a better job of placing (and keeping in place) the chemicals we are now using. Just the act of applying chemicals has gotten far more scrutiny than it once had. Here one has to have a license in order to procure and apply some chemicals. Have one in my pocket right now. To me then, it is the prudent agriculturalist who keeps in mind the role Mother Nature plays on all fronts: Nature abhors a vacuum… given sufficient time and space some of her creatures will adapt to whatever environment they are confronted with. If their adaptation is not to our liking (like Palmer amaranth, or slugs in the polytunnel) then it us to us to make the next play. For Mother has spoken 🙂

      • Thanks for that report, Clem. So a question that interests me, then, is to what extent we can reasonably expect our future plays with pesticides to head in an increasingly benign direction (as measured by their wider biotic effects) as a result of technological improvements in product and application design, or whether the resistance that we call forth from their application might push us back towards increasingly non-benign interventions to retain our crops. Or to put it another way using your road metaphor, are we looking at no more than bumps in a straight road ahead, or might there be some hairpins in prospect? Presumably the answer will depend on what kinds of agriculture we favour in the future, though probably not in any straightforward or simple way…

        • More bumps.

          Hairpins could be out there as well – indeed within some localized area I suspect some will point to accidents like a train derailment or an old storage tank leaking (as happened recently in West Virginia – fouling the water supply for weeks) as hairpins. And I won’t attempt to wave these away. Stewardship is complex and fraught with tradeoffs and compromise. And not all of our neighbors take certain matters as seriously as we might.

          But on the issue of pesticide technology continuing to get safer – I am still somewhat optimistic. Perhaps one could imagine a limit function where we could be asymptotically approaching a zero damage level. Or put another way – progress should continue with time but the rate of progress may well slow down.

          It may well be it is more critical for us to wrap our heads around all the aspects of the trade-offs that we make. Looking at one practice in isolation and judging costs without consideration of all benefits (that for which we are trading… directly and indirectly) may lead us into said hairpins.

          A couple angles we get from the organic movement and to some extent the ‘small farm future’ discussion [not the same thing] are 1) the alternate perspective, and 2) infrastructure and human capital for another way of evaluating the road as we find it. Without something to compare to – and folks prepared to study and practice the alternatives – we would be more inclined to blindly go along like we don’t know any better (as indeed we wouldn’t).

          You can’t appreciate beautiful if you haven’t known ugly.

  7. Something else that might be of interest… there is now a registry here in Ohio where bee keepers and specialty crop producers can go and list the locations of their sensitive crops or honey bees. This is very new and all I can attest to is that as a licensed pesticide applicator I have officially been informed that such a registry has been started and the State of Ohio (our Dept of Ag. I think) is maintaining it. As I understand it is still voluntary for pesticide applicators to seek it out and search the area(s) they intend to apply pesticides in. Apiarists and specialty crop producers are not forced to register (and there may actually be some resistance to register – but for unrelated issues).

    From my little corner of the Great Blue Marble I think this is an interesting development. As a little rascal – just a couple years into grammar school when Rachel’s book was first published – I was taught the proper use of a hoe and to be wary of the chemicals that my father would hire someone else to apply. I was also taught to respect one’s neighbors… if you had any consideration of doing something that might affect others you needed to think about it a couple times, and walk around the idea with from the neighbor’s perspective as well. Measure twice to cut once, so to speak. And I can imagine Brian might hear the drum beat of proper community relations in this – Dad was great at this.

    We kept bees (or more exactly – one of my brothers kept bees) for a time. We were seriously into specialty crops. As such we were also quite aware of everyone else in the area similarly engaged. Competition on one level, but kindred spirits on another. We rarely had any quarrel with any other producer over chemical use or any other agricultural practice. Neighbors just don’t harm each other. But perhaps I had a special upbringing… now perhaps our world has come to a point where the registry mentioned above is necessary. So the registry itself is not a bad thing… just that its a symptom of something I can only wish might heal itself though some sort of return to fundamental human decency.

    • I hate to reduce my convictions to a trite sound-bite. But, “we all live downstream” as the saying goes.

      I remember the rumble of bombers flying overhead as a kid dumping DDT in an effort to combat fire ants. Or running out into the streets with the other kids to play hide and seek in the fog of the mosquito truck. I recall waterskiing in the winter in the Calcasieu River, warmed by thermal pollution from the refineries. And I remember burying a sister last year who died of cancer. The reality, I am afraid, is that we don’t know. Something about the law of unintended consequences springs to mind. Drift happens.

      I find that as I age that the Luddites and their impulse make more and more sense. Who knows, I may go Neolithic and start gardening with a wooden stick next.


      • Salutary warnings. One point about the Luddites and their ilk that doesn’t get aired as much as it should is that they weren’t necessarily opposed to labour-saving technological development, but they opposed such development when it was implemented with no regard to the welfare of those whose labour had been ‘saved’. It’s a relevant bit of local history here in Frome, which rose to prominence as a cloth town in the 18th century at the very start of the industrial revolution (Frome has some of England’s earliest planned industrial housing), and whose clothiers were at the forefront of social protest. Of course, there’s no cloth industry here now – our clothes are made in perilously dangerous factories in Bangladesh, while the old clothier’s cottages are now changing hands here for upwards of £250,000. Still, all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

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