The Art and Culture of

Authentic Multiculturalism (part 2/4)

Limits to Growth (PDF source)
Limits to Growth (PDF source)

In this modern, industrialized civilization of ours, questioning whether culture has anything to do with agriculture is bound to get you funny looks, yelled at for not realizing that "things change," or pittied upon for supposedly holding romantic ideals of a care-free existence with nature. (And yes, I speak of experience.)

But regardless of most of us being blissfully unaware or staunchly in denial, the reality of the matter is that we in this modern world are living in a time that is fast approaching the limits to growth – limits to freshwater supplies, energy resources, minerals, agricultural fertilizers, and much more, including limits to how much longer printing presses, lending institutions, and now digibit conjure-ers can prop up what are essentially false economies.

While this all implies a descent from our current industial civilization to whatever it is that comes next, suffice to say that if we don't pre-emptively realize the importance of culture to agriculture, reality will soon have its own way of correcting our ignorance. That being so, a proper understanding of the term multiculturalism could go a long way in contributing to the alleviation of much of our misunderstanding.

To properly define the term multiculturalism requires, I believe, an examination of what the term multi is in reference to. Attached to culturalism, derived from the term culture, what we are dealing with is the idea of multiple cultures. Clearing things up a bit further, a passage from Fred Kirschenmann's book Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher has a bit more to say about the terms culture and agriculture.

The term "agriculture" is made up of two words, ager from the Greek (meaning "field" or "land") and colere from the Latin (meaning "to cultivate"). Colere, however, is multifaceted; both "cult" and "culture" are derived from colere. Embedded in its meaning is the notion of a community caring for its own refinement. Colere presumes a transcendent ethic guiding the community in its efforts to enhance its quality of life. We may therefore assume that to ancient people the word agriculture meant cultivation of plants and domestication of animals in the context of a caring community committed to the sacred obligation of caring for the land.

So, seeing how culture is intimately related to agriculture (and not merely in a semantic manner), going by what "the oldest definition of 'culture' refers to" (see the previous post, part 1/4), I can't help but wonder what multiculturalism would entail if we conceived the idea of multiple cultures as referring to – at the very least – multiple approaches towards "the cultivation of soil or the raising of plants or animals."

For as it stands, we're currently living in the time where the supply of crude oil is bouncing around the tip of the bell curve (peak oil – see the link to the Peak Oil Primer if you need an explantion), the era where fewer and fewer of us have been required to involve ourselves with agricultural activites is coming to an end. With less energies available for tractors, petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, transportation, refrigeration, processing, and so forth, food systems will by default become more local, and the planting, harvesting and processing of food will necessitate more manual labour.

No longer able to rely upon automation and all our fossil fueled doo dahs, the production of food will once again become a cultural endeavour. In other words, culture did have something to do with agriculture, it will once again have something to do with agriculture, all of which some of us have been able to temporarily dismiss thanks to our easily accessible supply of energy slaves. Furthermore, this is all regardless of whether or not we proactively try and prepare for all this, is regardless of whether we will have enough food to feed all the hungry bellies, and has nothing to say in regards to whether or not any of the societies we're moving towards will be ones where slavery once again becomes more blatant.

I don't think Johnny Appleseed would have approved of this orchard
I don't think Johnny Appleseed would have approved of this orchard

But in the meantime, what we currently have as the convention in government-sanctioned "multicultural" Canada and Australia, melting-pot United States, "developing" African countries, and rapidly industrializing China and India (to name only a few countries) is the perpetual amelioration of the homogeneous approach towards cultivation. By this is implied monocultures, and by monocultures we mean single crops (monocrops) grown and harvested with methods that are as near to identical as can be from farm to farm, country to country, even continent to continent. (In short, this means single crops grown with petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides, and high-tech machinery – although you can make substitutions like guano for petrochemical fertilizers if you like your monocultures Organic.)

Here comes the ethanol and high-fructose-corn-syrup!
Here comes the ethanol and high-fructose-corn-syrup!

Having realized how much of who we are as Canadians, Australians and United Statesians – or virtually any nationality for that matter – is based on monocultures, the concept of being multicultural should seem a bit hard to accept. For everything from our fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, berries, nuts, herbs, red meat, poultry, shrimp, salmon, timber, cotton, flowers and even honey bees are all grown or exist in monocultures.

That being said, the fundamental difference between the current abstract, utilitarian, globalization-based practice of multiculturalism, and a local land-based multiculturalism, would be as a starting point the acknowledgement that there are multiple ways to approach the cultivation of land and soil – or better yet, that unique lands and soils necessitate unique cultivation practices – which would ultimately take us away from the destructive one-size-fits-all mentality that currently pollutes not only our soil, air and water, but also our ways of thinking. Just as it would not be in favour of the monocultural approach of corporate agribusiness, a multiculturalism of the land would in effect work towards putting a stop to these uprooted societal tendencies of ours, and by default would instead strive for countries that consisted of pluralities of cultures, each rooted in the land and in its place by means of local adaptation.

As put by the writer and farmer Wendell Berry in his book The Art of the Commonplace,

A culture capable of preserving land and people can be made only within a relatively stable and enduring relationship between a local people and its place. Community cultures made in this way would necessarily differ, and sometimes radically so, from one place to another, because places differ. This is the true and necessary pluralism. There can, I think, be no national policy of pluralism or multiculturalism but only those pluralities of local cultures. And if these cultures are of any value and worthy of any respect, they will not be elective – not determined by mere wishes – but will be formed in response to local nature and local needs.

Of course, if we're going to work towards establishing local cultures, then it would be worthwhile to gain a better comprehension – and along with that maybe one day an understanding – of a fuller sense of culture. For as it now stands, our current understanding of culture has little to do with anything more than art, that is, the "fine" arts of those whose works adorn our museums and galleries, fill our library shelves, and reverberate amongst our concert halls and stadiums. Culture, then, and art, have largely been reduced to commodities that non-artists feel it their duty to consume in their leisure time, but nary are they regarded as part of our everyday lives of which we work amongst; there is scant art to life.

As put again by Berry,

In a disintegrating, shallowly pluralistic society such as ours, the artist's role gravitates toward a kind of nonessential entertainment, which merely distracts us from things that matter. In a truly grounded, locally adapted culture, the artists would be the rememberers. They would memorialize great occasions, preserve necessary insights and so on.

Furthermore, how often is it that when we think of culture, or of an artist, that we think about somebody working with skill and wisdom amongst the practical arts of farming, gardening, beekeeping, forestry, or rearing seafood? Speaking from the perspective I had prior to having WWOOFed (some of which encompassed me as a filmmaker – an "artist" if there ever was one), I would say rarely to never. I now see this as a very poor and inadequate comprehension of culture, particularly when it is remembered if not realized that those rarely regarded arts I just mentioned (which can also be very scientificall involved) are also known as agriculture, horticulture, apiculture, silviculture, and aquaculture, to which we can add the arts of cooking, carpentry, knitting and crocheting, and much more.

A nice variety of fermented vegetables and dairy products
(photo: Serendigity)
A nice variety of fermented vegetables and dairy products
(photo: Serendigity)

While ridding ourselves of much of the art to life as well as having relegated culture primarily to superficial affectations and decorative products we purchase, it is no wonder then that we have also quite commonly forgotten the living aspect of culture that resides, say, in our foods, so interestingly put by Sandor Ellix Katz in his book Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods:

Isn't it curious that we use the word culture to describe both the bacteria in yogurt and sauerkraut as well as language, art, science, and the totality of human endeavor? Cultured foods are not culinary novelties. They are found in infinite variation in culinary traditions around the world and are often invested with profound symbolic meaning. The earliest writings all refer to ferments, and folklore around the world has long associated good health and longevity with such diverse live-culture ferments as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, yogurt, kefir, and vinegar.

Surely it is folly of us to have disregarded the importance of all these and other implications of culture, for as we have sat back and oftentimes not even watched, the food we eat as well as the state of our farming, gardening, beekeeping and forestry practices have become so dilapidated that we have put the very continuance of our health and even civilizations at stake. (Of course, there's also the issue of EROEI and diminishing returns, but that's another story.)

I'll close off with a final quote by Berry.

I think the highest earthly result of imagination is probably local adaptation. If we could learn to belong fully and truly where we live, then we would all finally be native Americans [and Canadians and Australians], and we would have an authentic multiculturalism.

I venture to say then that if we ever intend on becoming "authentically multicultural," we best ought to realize that we can't get by without taking heed of and even participating in these incredibly important arts.

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Comments (4)

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Dean
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Aug 2014
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Nice work mate
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Dean: Thanks again!
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Karpatok
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Jan 2015
Very excellent essay Allan. And good ideas in relation to expanding the meaning of "multiculturalism". Now. How to engage the others outside of the dominant corporatocracy. And how to reach that dominant corporatocracy. So far you seem a good persuader, but that's maybe because you have chosen a select audience and are preaching to the choir. The PTB and their forces are far away and above the mere babel of visionaries. So is this a grass roots movement? And how to connect the two since this is neither a constitutional republic nor an educated democracy, any more. But nice try. It's very convincing to me. Thank You, Karpatok
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Karpatok: Thanks for your comments and good questions. Tough questions. For how do you get these notions out there? Although all this is being turned into a book, for now I'm just plugging away here at this blog. That being said, a few months ago I did actually have a few booths at various book markets and book festivals in Melbourne, Sydney and Toronto, but although reactions were very enthusiastic, the results (hits on the website) were dismal to say the least. Furthermore, I'd very much like to get this series of four articles on "authentic multiculturalism" in a mainstream newspaper or well-visited website, but since an "authentic multiculturalism" implies limits to growth and a re-examination of our priorities, such a sell isn't always very easy (as I take it you understand). Perhaps such viewpoints will be given more credence as collapse progresses and becomes more obvious, but that's a big "perhaps."

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