Tag Archives: R Buckminster Fuller

Using our Language-Shadows

We are capable of great creative and regenerative actions, as well as destructive and futile ones. Many recognise the increased power of our creativity and destructiveness as stemming from the so-called ‘industrial revolution’, when we began, at an unprecedented rate, burning much of what had previously been the ground we walked upon and the forests whose air we breathe. Yet how we came to be the complex web of human society, technology and machinery we are today has roots in a much more subtle event.

Buckminster Fuller, in his exploration of the history of human culture, mentions the invention of technology as a key component in shaping our societies. Yet he also points out that ‘technology’ refers to any tool which we create for our use, and that the first piece of technology we ever invented was the first word (1).

Power of words

Just because one has a tool, does not necessarily mean one knows how to use it in the most beneficial way. Our words can shape, twist and bend reality; we have created abstract concepts and ideas and with this, extended the reach of our human influence far beyond our own sensing bodies.

From some angles, we can see that all of the destruction, disregard for other species and mismanagement of our own home, the Earth, which we engage in is the result of a single factor: our extraction of ourselves from the natural world around us. Such an idea of separation can only even be conceptualised by the kind of language which many modern cultures use – language which has lost its roots in the surrounding world.

As Abram (1986) comments on, much of animistic, metaphorical culture relies on a deep linguistic connection with the non-human world, whose ties can be seen as having been broken by the advent of phonetic and written language (3). For example, the English language is made up of phonetic sounds which have little or no direct connection to what Abram and others term the more-than-human world, and so we have a much higher tendency of taking literally those symbols which are always only ever meant to point to a deeper truth, rather than being the truth itself.

We can also use words to artificially separate ourselves into ‘nature’ and ‘humans’: a separation which is only possible in abstract thought and which when applied to our sensing bodies and the world around us does not make any sense at all.

Walls of Words

Having identified that our use of phonetic language is a key factor in our disregard for the more-than-human world, should we then stop using this most dangerous and powerful of tools?

Perhaps it would be better for the planet if our method of communication had stayed in total connection with the more-than-human world around us, and therefore we can feel more readily the tearing pain of the mountain being sliced into quarried rocks; the stifling horror of the toxins pouring into the rivers and oceans, or the senseless mutilation of the millions of chickens who are born and die in the same tomb, all too often for their bodies to simply become discarded.

Yet the fact remains that we have invented phonetic language, and with it, abstract thought and the idea that we can harm and kill the other living beings which make up our world without causing detriment to ourselves. As Ursula K LeGuin puts it,

“You cannot take things that exist in the world, and try to drive them back into the Dream—to hold them inside the Dream with walls and pretences.

That is insanity.

What is, is.

There is no use pretending now that we do not know how to kill each other”. (3)

When considering that the more-than-human world, or web of biodiversity, extends to include all, “each other” has a very broad definition. Yet to condemn our actions is to waste energy in trying to will into non-existence what is already here. This is the same whether we are talking about the global ecosystem, the human species, or each individual soul. When applied on a personal level we can see that if we attempt to deny or escape parts of ourselves which we do not like, we usually end up sooner or later being controlled by those same aspects.

Psychologist Jung conceptualised this as the idea of the “shadow self”: that part of us which we may not necessarily be aware of, have fear of, or actively attempt to get rid of (see for example 4). Yet if we are to have healthy relationships with ourselves and others it is beneficial to at least be aware of our shadows, even if we do not exactly make friends with them. For it is from the darkness that we can gain more light; by accepting what we are and what we do we can learn from it and evolve.

Darkness and Light

The conceptualisation of the world as a balanced equilibrium between the two forces which can be roughly divided into dark and light is present in many cultures, from the Yin-Yang of ancient Chinese philosophy to the Incan God Viracocha, whose tears of sadness at the suffering of the world are the very rivers and lakes which provide the nourishment for all life (5). We cannot have one without the other;

“Only in silence the word,

Only in dark the light,

Only in dying life:

Bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.” (7)

Acceptance and Action

In accepting and even embracing those aspects of ourselves and the world which seem repugnant we can reach a new way of perceiving where we regain lost connections. However, this does not mean that there is no point in trying to change what we see for the better. Whatever we feel we can do to improve the quality of life of those around us, both human and more-than-human, if we feel it is right then it should be done. Yet the only really effective way of creating these improvements is from a starting point that allows for all perspectives; or at least as many as you, with your one human body and mind, can cope with.

In this we need to become fully aware of our situation and the brilliant potential power we have to shape our own destiny, and therefore the destiny of the world around us.

Magic words

Much of this power resides in the words we use. Perhaps we have not always used them in a way which is beneficial for us or those around us. The first way to change this is to become aware of how we use language. Are the words you use creating boxes and divisions in your mind, storing up emotions, or derogating yourself or other beings of the universe? If so, maybe we can think about changing the way we use them.

Words are indeed powerful tools; keys, if you like, to open the boxes and release all the power inside you. Words are not the only power. But if we wish to act together with other humans, using words in a conscious and considerate way will certainly be of some use.

Photo by David Ashwanden

References

  1. Fuller, Buckminster R, 1981. Critical Path. St Martin’s Press: New York City
  2. Abram, D, 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Random House: New York City
  3. LeGuin, Ursula K, 1976. Hainish Cycle No. 6: The Word for World is Forest. Tor Books: New York City
  4. Jung, C.G, 1938. “Psychology and Religion.” In CW 11: Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131
  5. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New World Library: New York City
  6. LeGuin, Ursula K, 1968. The Earthsea Cycles: A Wizard of Earthsea.

Rejoicing in Abundance

Occasionally I encounter someone who refers to our planet as being one on which scarcity is a problem. It is understandable how you could arrive at this viewpoint; after all, the media in this country often mentions food security issues and there are many people who are hungry, even right in our own home towns.

Institutions such as the idea of global aid seem to exacerbate this view; relying as they do on people in one country or region giving away some of the resources they have to another, seeming to imply that we cannot have all the resources we need right where we are. But is it helpful to see our world like this?

There is a lot of sentiment that scarcity is an illusion; and even an ever-growing body of evidence to show that wherever you are, abundance is a possibility.

The beauty of the world: something we can all esperience. Photo by David Ashwanden

The beauty of the world: something we can all esperience. Photo by David Ashwanden

Possible abundance

Back in 1980, architect, innovator and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller wrote of how thinkers such as Thomas Malthus, Charles Darwin and Karl Marx had managed to influence global conceptions to the point where

“All books on economics have only one basic tenet – the fundamental scarcity of life support. The supreme political and economic powers as yet assume that it has to be you or me.” –R. Buckminster Fuller, 1980 (1)

However, having undertaken a lifetime of research and experiment, he concludes that this conception is based simply on not looking at the wealth of the world in a holistic manner. If we account for all of our resources using what Fuller calls “cosmic accounting” (1) then we are all billionaires.

In the 2012 report to the UN Right to Food, Oliver de Schutter estimated that there is enough food being produced in the world to feed 12 billion people (2). This, even in spite of the fact that our farming methods are so inefficient that in many cases the inputs of oil-based products outweigh the outputs of food (see for example 3), and the current trend of ‘high-yield’ intensive monoculture farming is destroying habitats, ecosystems and soils (soils being something which is generally regarded as a useful substance for growing things in) to the point where, in some places in the UK, soil structure has completely broken down in over 75% of maize fields (4).

The UN Conference on Trade and Development’s 2013 report Wake Up Before it’s Too Late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now (5) explores how changing our agricultural systems will help to build more stable food sources, community development and – crucially – more food production (5). Even before that change is fully implemented, however, there are ways in which we can help to redress the balance.

For if we are all billionaires, and are producing enough food for 12 billion people, why are some still going hungry? Perhaps there are some who are taking more than they need, but there’s only so much excess you can eat, even if you are huge. When we begin examining this, we find that much of the commercial food produced in the world actually does not even get eaten – or come close to being eaten.

Food production for…humans?

                The Institute of Mechanical Engineers estimated in their Global Food Report Waste Not, Want Not that

“30–50% (or 1.2–2 billion tonnes) of all food produced never reaches a human stomach” (6)

There are many factors affecting this, from weather patterns to supermarket quotas and the global economy to local fashions in taste, and it is not only the producers who could be more efficient in their production. In many places, the industrialised, ‘high-yield high-input’ farming system means that crops are designed to be intensively grown in monoculture systems aimed at producing a large amount of crops at the same time. This method inherently carries a high risk of waste in it; for a large number of reasons, from higher risks of disease, pests and lack of nutrition involved in monoculture farming (see for example 5) to the practicalities of successfully harvesting and processing what is usually several thousands of individual crops at one time. These are compounded by supermarket regulations on size and quota, which here in the UK are quite specific in a way in which growth is usually not (7). The Soil Association estimate that 20-40% of UK Fruit and vegetables are rejected on “cosmetic grounds” (although who decides these cosmetic grounds is unclear) before they reach the consumer.

Even the slightest deformities may be enough for fruits and vegetables not to make it to the supermarket.

Even the slightest deformities may be enough for fruits and vegetables not to make it to the supermarket.

For more (and more extreme) examples of unusual crops check out the Guardian’s gallery  here

Turning problems into solutions

Luckily, the very complicatedness of the factors affecting why we are wasting so much food is also a fantastic opportunity. These factors show that often producers feel as though they do not have a choice about having to throw away vast amounts of their crops. And sometimes, they may not wish to throw them away. This leaves ample opportunity to take this abundant overflow of stagnating energy and utilise it.

This is exactly what the Gleaning Network (8) are doing. The Network is a campaign made up of volunteer ‘gleaners’, who get into contact with farms which have a surplus of unsellable (but still perfectly edible) crops, and go and pick said crops, distributing them to local charities and community groups who are in need of fresh food through Fareshare (9), a redistribution organisation who intercept food from going to waste all over the country, giving it instead to people who would like to eat it.

The Gleaning Network could only collect the surplus food from the farms if farmers were sympathetic, showing that the food production wastage problem is not as simple as just being the responsibility of the producers. At least there are some producers who see the incongruence, and are taking proactive steps to address it.

But what is this ‘Glean’?

The idea of gleaning is not a new one but dates back, as far as I can tell, to feudal times, or just after the concept of land ownership rather than common land which everyone can use became prevalent in England. I have heard a number of stories of who the original ‘gleaners’ were, and my favourite variation is this: that once the idea of land ‘enclosures’ as a pose to ‘common land’ began becoming steadily more and more popular, in particular around the 14th century (10), suddenly a large amount of the population, who had previously been farming using semi-communal resources on land which was owned by no-one, found themselves instead deemed as trespassers on someone else’s land. Yet the land owners recognised that the people living on what was now their land still needed to survive somehow; and indeed, it would be beneficial to them, the landowners, if the peasants continued to exist, since the landowners needed them. If there were no workers to farm the landowners’ land, the land would not be much use to the landowners. With this in mind the landowners would always purposefully leave a proportion of their crops unharvested in the fields. This would then be gleaned – that is, collected – by those who needed it.

So the Gleaning Network is reviving this practise – with all of the modern twists that the supermarket quotas, the ‘high-yield, high input’ farming systems, and the global economy bring with it. The Gleaners are back: but now instead of a few villagers picking their way across some small be-hedged fields, the Gleaning Network now regularly co-ordinates surplus harvests of upwards of 1 tonne of crops at one time.

Why is this happening?

The extent to which food waste has become commonplace is an indicator that it is perhaps not just one thing which needs to change, rather, that our entire culture could do with looking at from a slightly different perspective. Why do people find it acceptable to throw away what is clearly edible food in the first place? Some may feel it is beyond their control; but even so, it could be seen that this very attitude indicates a marked disrespect for, and lack of connection to, our food.

In his book Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature, Jules Pretty explores the idea that many in our culture may have lost (or temporarily forgotten) the deep significance of the role which food plays in our lives, and how with the simple act of eating, we are communicating in a vast number of ways to the environment, other people and creatures, and of course, our own bodies (11). “As consumers”, Pretty says,

The choices we make send strong signals about the systems of agricultural production that we prefer. We may not realise that we are sending these messages, but we are.” (Pretty, 2002) (11)

Just the simple act of realisation can be incredibly empowering. When you sit down to eat your dinner, do you listen to your body’s reaction to your food to gauge what is the right thing to feed it? Do you rejoice in sharing food, and in the power of the simple act of eating with others? When you procure your food, do you think about the effect this will have on the environment around you, and the other people, plants and creatures in it?

When we begin thinking about these things, it may well transpire that our own strategies of feeding ourselves, from sourcing our food to getting rid of waste, begin changing dramatically. In this way our whole culture of attitudes to food can begin to become healthier, more efficient and more beneficial to us.

One of the key aspects of creating a new culture is to create new stories as part of the culture. In this way we can strengthen our ties to each other, the planet and our food. In order to do this we do not have to disregard everything which comes before us; indeed, this is what makes us up so we have to integrate it in order to move forwards. All of our favourite stories and inspirations will probably be what is most useful here. As Joseph Campbell puts it, we can all make our own myths to help enrich our lives, and when we do,

“We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path.” (Campbell, 1949) (12)

For me this means following whatever stories I feel I can shape constructively into my own personal mythology in order to create a world of true abundance. With this in mind I began my foray into the world of gleaning. Intrigued? Stay tuned for the next post, where I explore this activity at farm level…

References

  1. Fuller, R.B, 1980. Critical Path. St Martin’s Griffin: New York
  2. Schutter, O, 2013. Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food. United Nation General Assembly: New York
  3. Lamberley, P and Oakeshott, I, 2014. Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat. Bloomsbury: London
  4. Monbiot, G, 2014. ‘The farming lobby has wrecked efforts to defend our soil’. Guardian, 5/6/2014. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2014/jun/05/the-farming-lobby-has-wrecked-efforts-to-defend-our-soil – retrieved 10/10/14
  5. UN Conference on Trade and Development, 2013. Wake Up Before it is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. United Nations: Geneva. Online copy can be found here: http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf
  6. Institute of Mechanical Engineers, 2013. “Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not.” IMECHE: London. Available as a PDF here: http://www.imeche.org/docs/default-source/reports/Global_Food_Report.pdf
  7. Lawrence, F, 2004. Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on your Plate. Penguin: London
  8. Feedback Global, 2014. ‘Gleaning Network’. http://feedbackglobal.org/campaigns/gleaning-network/ – retrieved 22/10/14
  9. Fareshare, 2014. ‘About Us’. http://www.fareshare.org.uk/about_us/ – retrieved 22/10/14
  10. Fairlie, S, 2009. ‘A Short History of enclosures in Britain’. Land Magazine, Issue 7, Summer 2009. http://www.thelandmagazine.org.uk/articles/short-history-enclosure-britain – – retrieved 22/10/14
  11. Pretty, Jules, 2002. Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature. Earthscan: Oxford
  12. Campbell, J, 1949. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Fontana Press: London