Food For Naught: Oil, Capitalism, and difference

In my post about pimps (below) I was trying, albeit in an extraordinarily silly way, to allude to a troubling systematic problem which I will now proceed to talk about in a more sober fashion.


The ready availability of cheap oil, upon which the entire edifice of contemporary civilization rests, is no longer dependable.

While this fact is connected with a whole host of emerging problems, I find it particularly alarming that agriculture, which is perhaps the deepest and richest connection between mankind and the planet, is now almost entirely bound up in the oil economy. The globalized, mass production model of agriculture leads to infamous policy snafus (like farming subsidies) as well as dependency upon (petroleum-based) chemical fertilizer, which is unbelievably bad for the flora and fauna. More importantly, it ignores bio-diversity, which is crucial to any natural system.

Pesticide and toxic herbicide (weed killer) are needed to sustain mono-culture crops like rice, wheat, soy, and maize (which together now constitute 60% of the world’s food supply). Not only does this lead to more chemical toxins in the ground water, it also encourages poison-resistant pests and weeds. When weeds naturally evolve pesticide/herbicide resistance, grains themselves must be genetically engineered to be toxin resistant just to survive. So you see, genetic engineering of crops is touted as a fabulous new technology, but it is instead a corporate quick-fix effort to sew up larger, systematic problems rather than really addressing them.

I admit that industrial agriculture has been successful for decades; at enormous costs in soil depletion and pollution. Also, since it is totally dependent on energy-intensive machinery, fertilizers and irrigation, industrial agriculture will become increasingly expensive as the price of oil continue to rise. (Indeed, Paul Krugman points out that food prices have soared)

Sustainable agriculture methods offer another way: rebuilding soils with compost and mulch, conserving water through ecologically intelligent landscape design, and replacing monoculture by planting mutually beneficial crops together. With permaculture, we can create sustainable farming jobs and abundant harvests, while rebuilding ecosystems. (See here for permaculture issues and ideas specifically for New York City and Brooklyn. Incidentally, I saw the author of that article speak at the Friends Meeting House near Union Square last month…fascinating stuff.)

Sustainable food production is now all the rage as a political issue– there are widespread calls to localize, regionalize, and diversify agriculture. Which is fantastic.

But for me, this is not enough. The oil-dependent food production system, which extends worldwide thanks to the efforts of agribusiness, represents just one facet of a deeper cultural issue endemic to modern Western civilization. This is difference. Capitalism, science, fossil-fuel-burning, nationalism…all are based on the illusion that human life is *not* primarily and most importantly dependent upon the biosphere, a fact which connects your interests fundamentally with mine. The crucial mechanism of difference is cutting an analytical slash between subject and object and passing it off as common sense. One of the most dangerous corollaries of difference is the idea of profit, the notion that you could be entitled to reaping *more* than you input into a system. This encourages narrow-minded individualism and ignores (or purposefully obfuscates) the real sources of wealth.

Why did I choose pimps and hoes as a metaphor? Because the expansion of colonialism, capitalism, science, and technology have historically been couched in the language of sexuality, sexual conquest, and sexual difference.

But that’s a whole ‘nother story, folks.


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4 Responses to “Food For Naught: Oil, Capitalism, and difference”

  1. William Bruntrager Says:

    You kind of lose me in the third-to-last paragraph on this one. My first suggestion is that you taboo the word “profit,” because I don’t think it’s doing you any good, and say what you are really talking about.

    I think you would be well-served by an expansion in the ideas of that same paragraph, because it seems like you are touching on the root of where you are coming from, but not really describing it in detail. I don’t know whether you realize it or not, but your model is pretty far from the mainstream.

    Do you have some conception of the kinds of improvements you would expect to see in a society that accords with your principles? What would such a society look like?

    I feel like I’m fortunate in a way, in that there is an extensive literature on anarchism and libertarianism that I can point to in trying to explain my beliefs, but I still don’t really get what your ideas of the world are “all about.”

    So, have fun with that.


  2. Nina Says:

    Thomas Phillips, you are my hero.
    A wonderful post, that touches on most things that make me world go round, in a deft, readable, and intelligent way.
    Well played, Sir!

  3. David Says:

    Much clearer and less goofy! Not that goofy is bad per se, you just didn’t leave any referents to latch on to in that last post, and I was baffled.

    Also! I disagree with William, as I don’t see how you could have been clearer about your point on profit. I mean, you followed the word directly with a comma and a clause defining exactly what you meant. So I’m not sure what he’s looking for, there.

  4. William Bruntrager Says:

    Your precious commas can’t save you on this one. The clause following the word “profit” in your essay is a coherent string of words, but a definition should be more than that. A proper definition should divide the world into categories so that you can say “This thing or sequence of events is profit” and “This thing or sequence of events is not profit.” Your definition is impossible to use in this way, even in theory. By your definition, in order to say “I am making a profit,” I have to know whether I am “entitled to reap more from a system than I input into it.” But how can I even know if I am getting more out of a system than I put into it? If I grow (say) corn, I am putting in seed and labor and receiving fully-grown corn. How can I determine whether I am “profiting” from this? I’m putting in one thing and receiving something completely different. If I am currently not making a profit but develop a more efficient technique and am able to use the same amount of labor, land, fertilizer, etc. to grow more corn, will I suddenly be making a profit?

    A definition that is impossible to apply is useless. Hence my suggestion that you forget about “profit” and talk about what you want people to do, i.e. how you envision ideal behavior or an ideal society.

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