Systems Solutions

Oct. 19, 2018

In Wendell Berry’s The Gift of the Good Land, he discusses solving problems based on nature’s patterns. He gives several examples, farming, energy production, sanitation systems, and education etc, of how bad solutions solve problems for a single purpose or goal, such as increased production. And it is typical of such solutions that they achieve stupendous increases in production at exorbitant biological and social costs. Such solutions always involve a definition of the problem that is either false or so narrow as to be virtually false. The whole problem must be solved, not just some handily identifiable and simplifiable aspect of it. These are also short sighted and do not fully consider all possible outcomes. A good solution is good because it is in harmony with those larger patterns of nature. A systems oriented solution would include integrities that begin with the cell organelles and end with the biosphere. Perhaps it is not until health is set down as the aim that we come in sight of real systematic solutions.

Often the solution exacerbates the problem, serving one good at the expense of another or of several others. If all their effects were ever to be accounted for they would be seen to involve, too frequently if not invariably, a net loss to nature, agriculture, and the human commonwealth. We know that sometimes a part may be sacrificed for the whole; a life may be saved by the amputation of an arm. But we also know that such remedies are desperate, irreversible, and destructive. Think of the symbiosis between coal-fired power plants and air conditioners. Burning coal increases atmospheric warming requiring the use of power to run air conditioners to deal with the heat. It is characteristic of such solutions that no one prospers by them but the suppliers of fuel and equipment.

Berry discusses the irony of agricultural methods that destroy, first, the health of the soil and, finally, the health of human communities. Large confinement-feeding operation may solve the problem of food production, but it is actually a way calculated to allow large-scale ambition and greed to profit from food production. Pen feeding of cattle in large numbers involves, first, a manure-removal problem, which becomes at some point a health problem for the animals themselves, for the local watershed, and for adjoining ecosystems and human communities. If the manure is disposed of without returning it to the soil that produced the feed, a serious problem of soil fertility is involved. But we know too that large concentrations of animals in feed lots in one place tend to be associated with, and to promote, large cash-grain monocultures in other places. These monocultures tend to be accompanied by a whole set of agricultural problems: soil erosion, soil compaction, epidemic infestations of pests, weeds, and disease. But they are also accompanied by a set of agricultural-economic problems (dependence on purchased technology; dependence on purchased fuels, fertilizers, and poisons; dependence on credit) – and by a set of community problems, beginning with depopulation and the removal of sources, services, and market to more and more distant towns. And these are, so to speak, only the first circle of the bad effects of a bad solution. With a little care, their branchings can be traced on into nature, into the life of the cities, and into the cultural and economic life of the nation. The real problem of food production occurs within a complex, mutually influential relationship of soil, plants, animals, and people. A real solution to that problem will therefore be ecologically, agriculturally, and culturally healthful.

When meat animals are fed on the farm where the feed is raised, and where the feed is raised to be fed to the animals that are on the farm. Even so rudimentary a description implies a concern for pattern, for quality, which necessarily complicates the concern for production. The farmer has put plants and animals into a relationship of mutual dependence, and must perforce be concerned for balance or symmetry, a reciprocating connection in the pattern of the farm that is biological, not industrial, and that involves solutions to problems of fertility, soil husbandry, economics, sanitation - the whole complex of problems whose proper solutions add up to health: the health of the soil, of plants and animals, of farm and farmer, of farm family and farm community, all involved in the same inter-nested, interlocking pattern – or pattern of patterns.

A good solution embodies a clear distinction between biological order and mechanical order, between farming and industry. Farmers who fail to make this distinction are ideal customers of the equipment companies, but they often fail to understand that the real strength of a farm is in the soil.

A good solution should be cheap, and it should not enrich one person by the distress or impoverishment of another. In a biological pattern – as in the pattern of a community – the exploitive means and motives of industrial economics are immediately destructive and ultimately suicidal.

A good agricultural solution, for example, would not pollute or erode a watershed. What is good for the water is good for the ground, what is good for the ground is good for the plants, what is good for the plants is good for animals, what is good for animals is good for people, what is good for people is good for the air, what is good for the air is good for the water. And vice versa.

Restraint – for us, now – above all: the ability to accept and live within limits; to resist changes that are merely novel or fashionable; to resist greed and pride; to resist the temptation to “solve” problems by ignoring them, accepting them as “trade-offs,” or bequeathing them to posterity. A good solution, then, must be in harmony with good character, cultural value, and moral law.