A Cosmic Tragedy
Totalitarian agriculture and our limited understanding of the economy
NOTE: This essay is taken verbatim from a graduate school application and contains the original academic citations.
Modern humans and our institutions are not equipped to fully comprehend the broad impact our economy imposes on the natural world. That’s because we conceive of “the economy” as the body of financial transactions that make lavish modern life possible. Not everyone enjoys that lavish life, but most of us believe in it. We mostly know our actions can pollute the environment, but this understanding is academic and circumscribed, the solutions simplistic, individual, and divorced from the economy. Ride a bike to work and recycle your soda cans but keep consuming. Our impact is obscured in how schools, nuclear families, governments, corporations, and modern culture frame the economy — as an immutable entity, dictated by naturally occurring, not socially constructed, rules. We believe in the economy in the same way we believe in gods, and we operate within it as if there are no other options. In tandem with this belief, we think the world was made for us, and we should be allowed to do what we want with it (Quinn, 1996, p. 280). So, naturally, we don’t ask basic questions about our consumption patterns. How does my donut purchase affect orangutan habitat? How long is a plastic bag’s life? In what physical space is this electronic document stored? In the field of ecology and adjacent professions, by contrast, the economy is far larger than financial transactions, encompassing the entire natural world. In 2010, a group of environmental lawyers published a framework for understanding the footprint of human economic activity in the physical world. The human economy, they wrote, is much bigger than the organism of financial transactions, influencing phenomena external to the capital market (Plater et al, 2010, pp. 18, 19). This essay examines the lawyers’ framework through the lens of what the late novelist Quinn (1996) called “totalitarian agriculture” and juxtaposes it against the way humans act in the economy.
Keywords: Quinn, Daniel; totalitarian agriculture; environment; environmental law
A Cosmic Tragedy: Totalitarian Agriculture and Our Limited Understanding of the Economy
Totalitarian agriculture dictates that we make radically more food than what we immediately need. Quinn (1996) coined the term “in order to stress the way it subordinates all life forms to the relentless, single-minded production of human food” (p. 247). The central imperative is to expand food production, nothing else. Succeeding other, more sustainable forms of food production 10,000 years ago, totalitarian agriculture quickly became the prevailing method of feeding ourselves. It continues to displace obscure holdouts of former food production methods — Afghanistan’s Kochi nomads or the Sentinelese hunter-gatherers of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, for instance. These cultures are fading away. Totalitarian agriculture transcends political ideologies and geographic boundaries, uniformly occupying East and West, Left and Right. Human wellbeing and general social progress are sometimes happy byproducts of this system and are used to justify it. But improvement of the human condition has nothing to do with totalitarian agriculture’s animating tenet of perpetual growth. We know wellbeing is not a goal of totalitarian agriculture because perpetual food expansion also inflicts tragic human suffering on a global scale, stripping most of us of leisure time, health, social contact, and dignity.
It’s important to note that agriculture is not inherently totalitarian; tribal societies have practiced sustainable forms of agriculture for millennia. These models can yield humble stores, but they do not care about growing the population or expanding into new territory. Only the modern strain of agriculture — shaped, accelerated, and purveyed to every corner of the earth over the last ten millennia — is totalitarian (Quinn, 1996, p. 253–255).
Totalitarian agriculture is distinct from other kinds of agriculture in that it expands inexorably into the physical environment, necessitating the extirpation of nonhuman species and certain groups of humans that compete with or don’t contribute to runaway food production. Since wild ungulates eat crops, they must be gotten rid of. Since wolves eat cattle, we must shoot and trap them. Since rattlesnakes bite cattle, we must slaughter them. And since American Indians compete with totalitarian agriculturalists for land, the bison that power their tribes must be gotten rid of, too.
Totalitarian agriculture spawns or reinforces massive industries that at first brush may not seem linked to food production — defense and war, infectious disease response and pharmaceuticals, packing plastics, real estate, organized religion. Each creates its own dramatic environmental footprint. None of these trades would exist in the current form without the parent organism of totalitarian agriculture. And to make room for new food production, we destroy habitat, driving down biodiversity and killing off more species than possible through hunting or culling, via totalitarian agriculture (Wilson, 2002). Ninety-nine percent of humans structure their lives around this method, yet we are largely disconnected from it. Only about 26 percent of the world’s workers are farmers by trade (down from about 40 percent in 1991). But everyone collectively participates in it, with only a few of us, mostly in rich countries, commissioning excess food production (Stuart, 2015; The World Bank, 2020).
If our system of agriculture operated by the rules of competition to which every other species is subject, it would be far less intrusive. But it can’t operate within those confines because its central goal is to perpetually expand food production. Because of this socially constructed rule, every other ecological relationship is considered external — and subordinate — to it. And because these relationships are not central to our objective, they are not central to our lifestyles, either. It’s difficult to show the connection between a paper mill that’s been decommissioned for decades and a cancer cluster. In the same manner, it’s difficult to show the connection between a steakhouse and agricultural clearcutting in the Amazon rainforest. So, most of us remain unaware of these connections.
Quinn (1996) coined another term: “The Great Forgetting,” which helps make clear that totalitarian agriculture is a grand accident (1996, p. 242). Totalitarian agriculture gained a foothold in the Near East around 8,000 BCE, preceding the invention of writing by nearly five millennia. Because there was no writing, no record of prior ways of life to totalitarian agriculture existed. Since we lacked a record of previous forms of food production, people thought humans were born practicing totalitarian agriculture (Quinn, 1996, p. 243). They could be forgiven for this — they knew nothing else. But archaeologists in the last few centuries exposed these other forms of agriculture, proving that for most of the three million years of human history, we got along just fine without perpetually expanding the food supply. However, by the time of this archaeological revelation, the human culture had been fully conditioned to believe humans were meant to perpetually expand food supplies. We now saw pre-totalitarian forms of food production as the quaint and ignorant ways of a less evolved Homo.
This is the dominant narrative that enables environmental degradation, and it contextualizes the myriad ways we ignore our ecological footprint.
The Economy Is Inherently Difficult to Understand
We think of the economy as the web of financial dealings that enable our lifestyle (Plater et al, 2010, p. 18). When I change cash for apples at the grocery store, I directly participate in the economy. According to this restricted framework, culture, values, lifestyle, and other entwined elements of our lives that are not monetary exchanges are excluded from the economy. When I help my daughter with a math problem, I do not participate in the economy.
But each act I commit in the confines of my household bears on the physical world in an economically important way. The paper my daughter and I use to work out her math problem comes from a physical resource that has an economic value. Had the tree that paper came from been allowed to grow, it would have sequestered a certain amount of air pollution that will otherwise have to be dealt with, perhaps through government actions paid for in everyone’s tax bill or maybe in an imperceptible acceleration of environmental pollution. Deep-thinking economists have tabulated the costs of some such activity (Wilson, 2002, pp. 103–128). But our comprehension of its breadth and depth is primitive.
On the other side of the coin, working out the math problem with my daughter will help her become a better educated, more productive member of society than she is likely to be if I shirk her assignments. In the same way we miss systemic harms, we often fail to see the benefits of such activities, too, illustrated when we vote against local mill levy increases.
That’s partly because power structures engage in dramatic physical and political efforts to hide these impacts from us. We established municipal dumps and litter laws to relegate trash from the public eye. The trash didn’t spontaneously combust or transport to an alternate dimension; it was simply disappeared from our short physical horizon. Only waste engineers and a few writers, activists, and laypeople who’ve happened upon the literature or call a landfill neighbor are aware of this problem’s impact. In another example, BP PLC used chemicals to sink the oil it accidentally pumped into the Gulf of Mexico after a deep-sea drilling rig it operated exploded in 2010. The blast let a pocket of the fossil fuel into the ocean in the largest oil spill in world history. The oil didn’t go away; it is hiding in water column. In yet another, natural gas extractors obscure the contents of fracking chemicals from the public, citing their intellectual property rights. These chemicals are exactly as poisonous as they would be if we knew what they were.
If that were not enough to hide our footprint, the environment, a resilient and tough character, itself plays a role. The sea and the sun bleach and break down plastics into pieces so small they cannot be seen, though they retain their toxicity; these pieces end up in every ocean strata, making their way into the food chain and, eventually, us. One of the confounding aspects of climate change is that its cause, greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere, is invisible and silent — something individual humans are not designed to perceive as a threat.
A Framework for Understanding the Full Economy
But efforts are made to remedy our lapse in perception. Plater et al (2010) constructed a framework for understanding how humans collectively relate to the natural world in an intimidating crimson tome titled Environmental Law and Policy. First, they offered a definition of the word “economics” as “the rules that govern the human household.” This definition encompasses more than what we are used to, extending far past the body of transactions that makes modern life possible. “Economics usually is given a narrower reach, evoking solely the concerns of the marketplace or the market economy.” Their definition of economics conjures a vaster place, an entire planet, really, because that’s what the human household is (pp. 18–20).
The framework is visualized in three concentric circles. The marketplace makes up the smallest concentric ring. It consists of complicated and abstract notions, such as money or banks. This is the ring to which most humans practicing totalitarian agriculture ascribe the term “economy.” It’s where we form legal relationships and corporations, create states, and procure war munitions. It’s where we measure economic health and design the metrics and rules by which financial transactions are shaped. These concepts can be regulated by humans because we made them up and they conform to our edicts.
The middle ring is the “Civic Societal Economy,” which includes social values, culture, personal human relationships — essentially all human activity not measured in the small ring. A good example is the labor of parenting, which is an enormously important industrial act that is mostly left out of the marketplace’s metrics. Another is housekeeping; another is volunteering. Again, such activity can be regulated because it is socially constructed; humans created it, and we are therefore its overlords.
The matrix in which both smaller rings evolve is the natural economy: “the intricate system of living and geophysical systems that sustains dynamic planetary processes, providing resources and a geophysical base for the human economies” (Plater et al, 2010, p. 19). We cannot regulate this because it abides only by absolute rules that are naturally, opposed to socially, constructed. Within the context of environmental crises — climate change, species collapse, pandemics — this framework exposes a systematic failure in the small ring of economic accounting. In current practice, the marketplace is “systematically blind” to the bigger rings because it primarily focuses on generating profit (Plater et al, 2010, p. 20).
In the same way totalitarian agriculture is solely dedicated to the expansion of food, the small ring has no value system other than economic growth. We see this, for example, when people making the rules for the small ring are ready to sacrifice certain human life to allow more economic growth, as some American lawmakers have promoted during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. In this way, the small ring is like a Terminator from the namesake A.I. movie franchise, which will stop at nothing to achieve its objective, not even its own destruction.
As with totalitarian agriculture, problematic activity in the small ring can continue, at least for a time, because problems mostly manifest outside the small circle, and there is a temporal lag in the physical mechanics of natural and economic laws. A classic example is cancer clusters. When a paper mill dumps carcinogens into a water supply, as paper mills have been known to do, local cancer rates can increase but usually only decades later. This does not affect the small ring because local cancer victims are not the sole clientele of the company that runs the paper mill. In the market economy, the cost of health care for the victims and the inevitable losses in economic activity when the victims die is sloughed to taxpayers, community crowd funds, the victims themselves — anyone but the paper company and its customers. These costs are tritely called “externalities.” (Manufacturers of different consumer products have spent much treasure fighting and settling lawsuits over cancer clusters but only in the rare circumstances that affected communities recognize the problem, can find and afford lawyers, and can be represented before a sympathetic judge.)
But like the Terminator, the paper company can be suicidal. It doesn’t see far enough in the future to anticipate the conditions of its own demise because it only measures success on a quarterly basis and projects its prospects based on resources that currently exist, though they may disappear in the future. The Terminator’s goal is to dispatch a target; the paper company’s goal is to satisfy investors.
Though we cannot regulate the large ring, we still exist inside it. So, when the rules we impose on the systems in the small ring disagree with the rules that exist independently in the larger rings, all systems become stressed, begin to fracture, and eventually fail. For example, the rules in the small ring allow us to emit large amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, altering its chemical dynamics. But while the rules in the large ring do not physically stop us from doing so in the short term, they will make life on this planet, as it’s evolved, impossible to perpetuate. There will be an ecological collapse, and because the small ring exists inside the large ring, an economic collapse will follow the ecological one.
A full economic collapse that topples the entire system of concentric circles would affect each ring differently. The small ring would simply be a casualty because it is not real. It doesn’t feel anything. It exists only in human imaginations. If enough people stop believing it exists, it will cease to exist.
The outer ring, which works on geologic time, would simply reset over the course of a few million years, orders of magnitude longer than the small rings existed but only minutes on the Cosmic Calendar.
The middle ring, however, is built of human lifestyles and would register immense suffering. This is the one we care about. It’s the one that “comprises actual social costs, benefits, resources, energy, inputs, outputs, values, qualities, and consequences that are not accounted for in the marketplace.” The damages incurred in the marketplace often step out of the small ring “but don’t thereby drop into oblivion” (Plater at al, 2010, 20). They must go somewhere.
The lawyers argue that we must find a balance between the inner and outer rings, and they are right. They use this analysis to justify a strong government-backed legal regime that forms a system to comply with natural rules. But Quinn (1996) would disagree. A legal regime, he wrote, is incidental to the goal of bringing humanity into compliance with natural laws if totalitarian agriculture continues to insist on the perpetual expansion of food production from which the market economy and Civic Societal Economy spring.
Plater, Z. J. B., Abrams, R. H., Graham, R. L., Heinzerling, L., Wirth, D. A., & Hall, N. D. (2010). Environmental law and policy: Nature, law, and society. Frederick, MD: Aspen Publishers.
Quinn, D. (1995). The story of B: An adventure of the mind and spirit. New York: Bantam.
Stuart, T. (2015). Food: how much does the world need?. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/05/food-how-much-does-the-world-need/
Wilson, E. O. (2002). The future of life. New York, NY: First Vintage Books.
The World Bank. (2020, June 21). Employment in agriculture (% of total employment) (modeled ILO estimate). worldbank.org. https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SL.AGR.EMPL.ZS?end=2020&most_recent_value_desc=false&start=1991&view=chart.