One-Straw Revolution

 

This book is Zen and the Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance-esque, in that the first half is about this Japanese guy’s life work and discipline of running a self-sustaining farm, and the second graduates into his life philosophies (as farming has taught him) at length.

Of course, I haven’t ever read ZatAoMM, so I could be off on the comparison.

Fukuoka’s got a pretty small farm (by modern industrial farming standards), an acre for grains and veggies, and 5 or so acres for a mandarin orange orchard. People come to live on his farm to be disciples of his way of life, the farm sustains about 15 people at a time. It’s mostly self sufficient apart from a few purchased goods: soy sauce and vegetable oil, things which would be impracticle to self-produce, and I’m sure some amount of salt/spices/tools, etc are also purchased. They sell a mandarin oranges for profit.

Fukuoka was a research scientist in microbiology and agriculture before falling ill, and while in the hospital realizing that western agriculture was bullshit and that he was going to go do it differently.

He calls his practice do-nothing farming, his mentality is that letting the natural systems do their work means that the farmer can do less. He doesn’t use pesticide to kill insects eating the plants, which allows other insects higher up the food chain to stop the ones eating the plants, and other animals to eat those in turn. Avoiding pesticides allows the whole food chain to reach a happy fixed point, a dynamic equilibrium. Pesticides also have side effects of burning nutrients out of the soil over time. So letting nature run its course means that the farmer doesn’t have to spend the time applying pesticides, and the soil is allowed to grow strong as well. Win-win.

The numerical yield from his farm is the same or higher than that of comparable farms using much more labor-intensive processes.

His grain planting practice was particularly interesting, rice in the warm season and rye/barley in the cool. He doesn’t do any of the complex flooding and transplanting process usually associated with rice farming, instead scattering (he calls it ‘broadcasting’, which I quite like) rice seed in spring among the previous season’s rye and barley, harvesting the rye/barley and letting the rice grow, scattering rye seed, harvesting the rice and letting the rye/barley grow, and so on. All the while he also scatters clover seed, which forms a nice low base layer to help the soil retain moisture and help keep the seeds from being eaten by birds.

Fukuoka’s life philosophies are largely that humans have created a whole bunch of extra work for themselves (see pesticide example), which then begets more work to sustain the side effects, etc.

He says we’ve lost touch with what tastes good, with our natural ability to determine what foods are healthy and what foods our body needs at a given time. He says that really, food straight from the gardens simply prepared is truly delicious, but we’ve convinced ourselves that we need more complex preparations for food to be worthwhile.

I found the book in a list of permaculture/no-till farming authors, this certainly fits the bill. Last week I broadcasted some spinach seed in my vegetable patch in the backyard, as the most accessible version of an experiment of his technique. So we’ll see if the birds eat it or what.

Revenge of Geography

Great book to follow up on Accidental Superpower, slightly more academic and much more depth. Kaplan spends more time discussing history geopolitical understanding, as well as on deeper exploration into various regions around the world.

Starting with Central Europe, he works through the rest of Europe, the Eurasian Heartland, Russia, China and neighboring seas, Japan, Southeast Asia, India and the subcontinent, and the Middle East, finishing with an analysis of the US especially in regards to Mexico.

Indian Subcontinent

I was particularly interested in the tension in between India and Pakistan (given my family origins). The subcontinent has a more complex geography than it appears at first: India is broken up by horizontal rivers on a vertically organized peninsula, and further by highlands and mountain regions. This has prevented a unified India for much of its existence, despite partial consolidation of power in the north or south at various time periods. Kaplan states that historically, control of the subcontinent has stemmed from joint control of Delhi and Lahore. The formation of Pakistan is a geographical anomaly and a curiosity in that the border between the two nuclear nations has become hyper-militarized without any sort of true “geographical logic” as grounds. The steppe from Afghanistan (another almost-failed state whose mountainous geography defies central control) to northern India has no defined demarcation. To Kaplan, Pakistan represents the history of invasion of India from the northwest, poised on the border in nation-state form.

USA/Mexico

The US-Canada border is geographically logical: there is the intra-Canadian isolation affected by the Canadian Shield, dense forestation on the border, and the Canadian climate driving the population to be pushed up against the southern fringe. The US-Mexico border is not this way. Kaplan points out that the American tactic of investment in remote conflicts in the Middle-East is trivially misguided (or at least that continued investment will be) compared to investment in assisting in the development in Mexico. Militarized borders trend economically and sociopolitically in the direction of the less developed nation: the solution is that a more developed and stable Mexico will create joint prosperity in the US. Over time, Mexican immigration into the US will see a demographics shift (especially in the southwestern states) which has already begun, an increase in Latino and Spanish-speaking peoples which will influence the culture of the country.

Kaplan emphasizes the joint importance (and long-term prevalence) of geography with the actions of “Great People” to self-determine. He has no illusions that geography is not a predetermined fate — and also no illusions about ignoring geographical lessons in the hopes of a post-geography world.

Highly recommended.

Man’s Search For Meaning

Following my 2/3rds completion of The Gulag Archipelago, I selected to read this popular and highly acclaimed book by psychiatrist Viktor Frankl.

The first half is a tale of Frankl’s experience in the Nazi prison camps (including and mostly centering around his time at Auschwitz). He uses this basis of experience to justify and give depth to his understanding of human psychology: people in the camps were able to find meaning when they had nothing else. This meaning allowed them to live, he even states that meaning is a primary motivator in human Being, not a secondary effect of more ‘primal’ survival needs.

He shares, in the camps cigarettes were used as a commodity; they were hard to come by–sometimes as a reward for labor from the guards–, highly valued, not smoked, and traded for a bowl of soup and so on. When you saw a man smoking his cigarettes, you could be sure he was going to die soon: the man had given up his will to live, falling towards seeking immediate pleasure and comfort, and once lost the will was impossible to recover.

Frankl repeatedly references Nietzsche’s: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

The second half of the book provides an overview of Frankl’s Logotherapy, a now-field of psychiatry focusing on a person’s ability to generate meaning for themself. Frankl explores the paradox of happiness and success. If one is explicitly seeking happiness (or success), the goal becomes harder to access. He says: Success cannot be pursued, it must ensue.

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

Liberty devolves into boredom and chaos without the twin pillar of Responsibility. Frankl even mentions off hand that there could be a Statue of Responsibility on the west coast to complement the Statue of Liberty on the east. The lack of understanding of responsibility is a major factor in our society’s current crisis of western existentialism.

Heuristic: He urges the reader to live through each situation as if we are going through it for the second time. Imagine that the first time, you chose the absolute worst possible course of action, and then act with this knowledge in mind.

So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!