Point/Counterpoint: A Blogger Exchange
Point: Ending the Taker Culture
By Loriliai Biernacki
In a May 15th Counterpoint posting, Kocku von Stuckrad made the case for an alternative to the “Taker culture,” that is destroying our planetary resources. I want to muddy the waters—pun intended—as much of our near-apocalyptic transformation of the planet revolves around mud: how we generate food in and with soil.
While I agree with much of what von Stuckrad writes: the nuances of food production are of crucial importance. He calls, for instance, for us to stop subsidizing the meat and dairy industries. I would suggest that the problem is the factory-capitalization of farming, not meat and dairy per se. One of the most exciting possibilities for not only slowing our production of atmospheric carbon parts per million but sequestering them back in the soil come precisely from farming with—and then eating—animals. Working with cows, pigs, and chickens can be part of a virtuous cycle of clearing land with methods that regenerate the soil. Compelling evidence suggests that Regenerative Farming—small farms using a complete cycle of life, including animal husbandry—offers the best potential for restoring biodiversity and for sequestering carbon into the soil, helping to avert the most dire effects of climate change, as this report notes.
Regenerative Farming methods differ from current factory farms, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs (which concentrate a large number of animals in a small space), as well as corporate farming practices, which involve using genetically modified seeds and pesticides like glyphosate and 2,4-D, designed to destroy everything but the genetically modified plant. As the National Pesticide Information Center notes, 2,4-D generates what looks like a gruesome plant cancer, where “2,4-D kills plants by causing the cells in the tissues that carry water and nutrients to divide and grow without stopping.” Jeffrey Smith and the Rodale Institute explain how closely linked GMO transformation and pesticides are to the devastation of other species. The recent study pointing to a loss of 75% of insects over the last 25 years is beyond alarming.
Regenerative Farming, on the other hand, uses a no-till method, meaning farmers do not till the soil to plant. In between planting seasons, cover crops are planted, which cows then graze. Cow manure enriches the soil, and then chickens pick through the cow leavings and add their own, leading to healthier grass-fed cows and chickens along with a more vibrant diversity of species living in the soil. For those interested in a visual snapshot of Regenerative Farming, a new film, Biggest Little Farm, offers an arresting sensory example of what Regenerative Farming can bring to drought-ridden and damaged soil.
The ecological damage done by pesticides means moving away from current dairy and meat industry practices, but it does not mean that everyone must become a vegetarian. A misguided “holier than thou” blaming of Christians (and others) who eat meat feeds a right-left impasse and distracts from the real problems of the “Taker culture.” Joel Salatin, for instance, is a “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic.” His Regenerative Farming methods work wonders restoring bio-diversity and topsoil, adding 6-8 inches of topsoil in a few years, a feat usually understood to take centuries. Similarly, Eighth Day Farm in southwest Michigan offers a merger of Christian values in a context of Regenerative Farming. One can also see this type of holistic, environmentally conscious Regenerative Farming as key to the work of the well-known Hindu climate activist Vandana Shiva.
We need a more complex and generous awareness of our current “othering” practices and religious-atheist polarizations that distract from the politics of food. As a matter of disclosure, I neither identify as Christian nor eat cows, pigs, or chicken.
Counterpoint: Change Comes from the Margins
Let me express my gratitude to Loriliai Biernacki for engaging my blog post and for offering her important reflections. Indeed, when we describe the radical positions taken on the dramatic planetary change we are currently undergoing, we always run the risk of being too black and white in our sketch. Consequently, we may seem to sustain binary interpretations. On the other hand, if we include all nuanced positions in our analysis, we run the risk that people pick what they want from the argument and pretend that it is all so complex that we don’t actually need to draw actionable conclusions. In politics, this happens all the time.
Daniel Quinn’s metaphor of Taker culture is helpful as it characterizes anthropocentric philosophies, religions, and policies without blaming one particular type as being the only driving force behind the planetary crisis. There are, of course, attempts within Christianity (and other traditions associated with Taker culture) to tackle the problem and create a Christian version of Quinn’s “peace-keeping law.” Regenerative farming, as Biernacki rightly contends, is a case in point. In a similar vein, there are Christian theologians who try to establish a biocentric version of Christianity, for instance Catherine Keller in her Political Theology of the Earth.
The problem is, however, that the hierarchies of institutionalized religions—the “religious organizations” I address in my blog post—usually don’t listen to these alternatives. Quite the contrary: even Pope Francis’s letter Laudato Si (which itself is still an anthropocentric document) hasn’t had any long-lasting influence. As Bron Taylor said in a recent interview: “The Pope did his best to put his arguments in the spiritual terms of his church, but fundamentally, these are organizations devoted to putting people first.”
My point is that religious organizations—and governments–that buy into such an anthropocentrism need to listen to these minority voices and take much more radical decisions to leave Taker culture behind.
The suggestion that governments stop subsidizing meat and dairy industries should be read in this way. I’m not arguing that all individuals should switch to a vegetarian diet or fully vegan lifestyle. As individuals, we all make compromises; many people who follow a plant-based diet still buy leather shoes or travel by plane. We should not apply a “holier than thou” strategy to blame people who make decisions other than the ones we make. In Donna Haraway’s words, we should accept that our answers are imperfect and that we “become with” other critters. Sometimes we’re connected with them through food chains and networks of agency: “Queer messmates in mortal play, indeed” (p. 19).
Although there is reason for skepticism about the human future on this planet, we should also not forget that radical change usually comes from the margins rather than from the centers of power. Often it comes unexpectedly, as Susannah Crockford argued on this blog. It comes from the counterpoint that runs against the well-known patterns of perception.
That is also, for me, what the Counterpoint Blog is all about. The counterpoint is not an exercise in polarization or opposition; neither is it an attempt at neglecting difference. Rather, it is about including the differences that are necessary to generate new voices, a new sound. Margins can become centers.
That is yet another reason I’m grateful to Loriliai Biernacki for her comments.
Loriliai Biernacki teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her first book, Renowned Goddess of Desire: Women, Sex and Speech in Tantra (Oxford, 2007) won the Kayden Award in 2008. She is co-editor of God’s Body: Panentheism across the World’s Religious Traditions (Oxford 2013) and currently working on a study on the eleventh-century Indian philosopher Abhinavagupta within the framework of wonder, the New Materialisms, and conceptions of the body-mind interface.
Kocku von Stuckrad is one of the co-founders and co-directors of Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge. As a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Groningen (Netherlands), he works on the cultural history of religion, science, and philosophy in Europe. His forthcoming (German) book is The Soul in the Twentieth Century: A Cultural History.
This Counterpoint blog post may be reprinted with the following acknowledgement: “This article was published by Counterpoint Navigating Knowledge on 22 May 2019.”
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