It Still Ain’t ‘Just’ a River
Recently, I gave a talk to a local Historical Society about farm history and its relation to my book about the new organic farmers now active here in the Snoqualmie Valley. The talk went well and when I called for questions at the end, there actually were some. Most were typical, including comments from the senior membership about the once dairy rich commerce of the Valley and the usual complaints about the government regulators, who, many believe, really drove the small dairy farmer to extinction. There were some questions, however, which stumped me; not because I couldn’t find the answers, but because of the response my answers elicited.
All of those responses hinged upon the presupposition that the small organic farm, 14 acres or less, was neither a viable agricultural nor a profitable economic model; rather it was a nice hobby, or at best an herb garden for specialty markets. Certainly, a small farm could not produce enough products to feed many people, nor could it generate enough income to keep a farmer going. Finally, an organic farm simply cannot “feed the world” the way the factory farm and agribusiness can—“you have to use chemical fertilizers and pesticides to get maximum production—isn’t that so?”
When I gave all the statistical information I had to the contrary, including annual incomes from the farms I’d documented ranging from $50,000 to $500,000, I was greeted by a stony silence which implied my questioners did not believe me or at least found my data suspect (“that may be true, but agribusiness is still better.”). Also, there was a palpable sense of “threat” coming from them; unspoken but visible nonetheless as their postures stiffened the way some parents react to unorthodox proposals about sex from their adolescent children. They said nothing in argument but I knew they didn’t buy it. I also knew I would have to think about this.
Denial is indeed a strange phenomenon. Its extreme demonstration is best characterized by the various case histories from neuropsychiatrists like Oliver Sachs (“The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”) and V.S. Ramachandran (“Phantoms in the Brain”) about patients who have suffered right brain strokes.
The salient feature of the ‘right brain stroke’ is that the victim has no idea anything is wrong. In fact, the victim will deny vigorously that s/he has any difficulty with the left side of the body which is, according to the victim, definitely not paralyzed or worse, the affected body parts (the left arm, for example) do not belong to them at all.
A case in point is from Oliver Sachs who recorded the antics of a man who had suffered a right brain stroke and was incessantly throwing himself out of bed at night. His claim, upon questioning, was that someone had put his brother’s arm in bed with him and he was merely throwing it out. He was, in fact, grabbing his own paralyzed left arm with his right hand and yanking it hard enough to extricate his entire body from the bed. However, it is the work of Ramachandran that is of particular interest here.
Nothing comes from nothing in nature and in the case of neuro-science, it appears that organic damage (strokes, injuries, etc.) which affects certain brain regions gives, by implication, clues as to the ‘normal’ functioning of those regions undamaged. In the case of denial, new insights are available about the general function of the two cerebral hemispheres.
Ramachandran’s work shows, broadly, that the left hemisphere’s primary function is to construct, from the plethora of available sensory data, a coherent model of the world which enables us to function and make decisions. Indeed, we would be overwhelmed by sensory data without that model to filter it. The left brain is conservative and will attempt to preserve that world view at all costs, even if that means shutting out counterexamples which could be valuable.
The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is creative, admits anomalies and questions the status quo. When enough counterexamples pile up, the right hemisphere forces a major shift in the model—a change in belief. When the right hemisphere is damaged by a stroke, however, its ability to recognize anomalies does not function and so the patient’s left brain takes over and “denies” existence of a problem like paralysis of the left arm. More importantly, the stroke patient uses all of the Freudian defense mechanisms; out and out denial, repression, reaction formation, rationalization, humor, and projection—all amplified ten-fold. Finally, Ramachandran’s work demonstrates that these defense mechanisms are key functions of normal hemisphere interaction and are the very means employed by all of us to support our personal models of reality.
The news here for me is that all of us, including those of us who know we are ‘right’, have, of neurological necessity, constructed a map of reality which is ultimately subject to question and, worse, our favorite ally in defense of it, “common sense”, is the least reliable of all. The steady movement of the earth in rotation beneath our feet remains, despite Galileo’s truth, impossible to detect. If it were detectable, we might be severely hampered in our efforts to walk; perhaps doomed to life on our bellies clutching at grass for stability. All maps/models are indeed not the territory, but an imperfect map is preferable to no map at all and if we are to function in the world we must believe what our artful fakes tell us until we learn otherwise. And I think this, finally, is the root cause of the response I got from my doubtful questioners at the Historical Society.
For the past 50 years, 99.9% of the American population has known only one representation for the acquisition and consumption of food products—the supermarket. Choosing what that supermarket sells is governed by the American Medical Association, the Food and Drug Administration, and the US Department of Agriculture—all working in consort with media advertisers employed by the various food processing companies.
The AMA, FDA, and USDA exist to guarantee nutrition and food safety. Food Processors and advertisers exist to promote the sale of products whose acquisition and preparation by the consumer must be, above all, easy and convenient. Beyond these, of course, are the few mega-corporations whose control of the food market has grown steadily since the 1950s. With the advent of companies like Monsanto and Archer-Daniels-Midland, that control has extended directly to the farm with genetic patents for seed, fertilizer and pesticides ultimately determining not only what is grown but how and by whom.
No matter how we evaluate the nature of our food system—morally, practically or otherwise—we simply don’t know anything else. And the few who claim counterexamples from historical traditions, new takes on “organic” practices or point to looming environmental catastrophes and the ultimate depletion of soil—our singular basis for existence—will be resisted with every form of denial. Common Sense will, in the end, defend the defenders who need only point to the abundance of food products overflowing from every shelf in any American supermarket. Moreover, food products that come from any other source are regarded as suspect. Finally, despite the various microbial scares, E-Coli epidemics and food politics of all stripes, our supermarket food is by and large safe; most people just don’t get sick from eating it—they get fat. And with fat, we enter what has to be the “Twilight Zone” of denial.
With the current surge in obesity and Type II Diabetes our belief systems and reality collide—left brain paradigm and right brain counterexample face off at every turn. The search for cause runs the gamut from simple lack of exercise and overeating to the evils of processed food to poisoning from agricultural chemicals to the unknown horrors of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Advocates of organics say “We told you so!” while the AMA claims that moderation, regular exercise and more fruits and vegetables will stay the caloric risks of too much sugar and complex carbohydrates. Yet none of the governing agencies find fault with the foods themselves or the factory model of production. At the very least this is an epistemological quagmire for the consumer and to claim, as I’d be inclined to do, that our way of life is killing us and a major paradigm shift is necessary for human survival long term, will only deepen resistance to change. The food safety/health dilemma, however, pales in comparison to the denial associated with the looming environmental crises.
Global Warming (or climate change if you prefer) as a consequence of human activity is still “hotly” contested despite the increase of violent weather events, draught and glacial melt. Nor is the real looming crisis of worldwide water shortage and topsoil depletion considered worthy of a shift in priorities; they are, in fact, rarely discussed.
It took the Roman Catholic Church over 300 years to admit Galileo’s truth and thereby confirm the Copernican universe. And, the Darwinian revolution remains discounted by over 60% of the American public. Finally, natural resources are, by and large, still considered limitless and are not placed with any prominence in any of our economic models. The fact that we will run out of fossil fuels in the near term is subject to every Freudian defense mechanism and probably some he did not consider.
Placing the blame on innate neurological structures is of little help and is in itself a form of projection—like the patient’s claim that “this paralyzed arm belongs to my brother because I know perfectly well that my own arm is fine.” Knowing, however, that paradigms (models of the world) are at the core of the way we perceive is revelatory because it means that change is, grace of the right brain, always a neurological possibility and, at some point a survival mechanism. It is noteworthy, in that light, that the “denial component” of right brain strokes eventually fades in most cases and the patient, after a few weeks, can acknowledge the damage. S/he is still paralyzed but now has awareness as a first step toward recovery. Cultural paradigm shifts, as noted above, are not so easy. For reasons largely attributable to fear of the unknown, left brain conservatism consistently shuts out right brain counterexamples advocating cultural change.
As the demise of ancient civilizations demonstrates, those who collapsed were those in denial; in the end they could not change their world views sufficiently to avoid destruction. And, as David Montgomery (author of “Dirt—the Erosion of Civilizations”) and Jared Diamond (author of “Collapse”) have noted, sooner or later it was the depletion of resources coupled with flawed belief systems concerning the structure of the natural world that caused the demise of each now extinct civilization; Roman, Mayan, Sumerian and Easter Island to name a few.
At issue here is the possibility that even though maintenance of our learned and, to some degree, tested models of the world currently keep us safe, healthy, and politically secure, we may be resisting a paradigm shift at our ultimate peril. The cumulative results of continued denial of the finite nature of resources, for example, is that when they to reach the tipping point we can find ourselves at the mercy of irreversible scarcity and final depletion of essential survival elements; soil, atmosphere and water. The real tragedy, however, would be realizing that we had the ways and means to develop a sustainable low entropy food production/distribution system which would have made a reasonable way of life attainable for all and we refused to make the changes.
As our innate neurological structures teach us, change via counterexample is essential to the dynamics of right and left hemisphere function and central to individual survival. As a metaphor for cultural dynamics, the relationship can also serve us well. The key is to recognize that resources are indeed limited and the challenge is to learn the nature of the limitations inherent within all living systems; the earth as organism being at the top of the list. With a world population approaching 9 billion by the end of the century or sooner, denial becomes our worst enemy; preserving our “way of life” may indeed kill us.