Small Is Not Only Beautiful … It May Be the Key to Our Survival!

by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi

As climate change advances ever more ominously and leads us closer to climate chaos, the key to reducing carbon emissions may lie not in ambitious market-based solutions but in a transformation of the dominant model of food production.

Members of peasant farmers group La Via Campesina demonstrating outside the UN climate talks in Copenhagen. (Photo: Friends of the Earth International)

Last month the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced that it had moved the hand of its Doomsday Clock ahead from five minutes to three minutes before midnight, a decision due to the unchecked advance of climate change and the modernization of nuclear weapons systems. At almost the same time, the National Climatic Data Center of NOAA confirmed that 2014 was the hottest year on record. They also pointed out that the previous ten hottest years ever recorded have all occurred since 1998.

These revelations that our survival as a species–or at least as a civilization–is in jeopardy add to the urgency of the UN’s climate conference, COP 21, to be held in Paris next December. While hopes ride high that a rigorous and legally binding agreement on reducing carbon emissions will finally emerge in Paris, it would be a mistake to assume we can just sit back and trust negotiators to devise an effective accord on their own. We should never underestimate the power of the fossil fuel corporations and their allies. Time and again, at COP conferences from Copenhagen to Lima, they have used their influence to dash hopes and shatter promises, and it’s unlikely they will keep aloof from the talks in Paris. Strong pressure, indeed relentless pressure, will be necessary to prevail against them. 

Even without the meddling of the fossil fuel agents, high-level climate summits seldom deviate from the premises of free-market economics. They always assume that growth is essential to a sound economy, despite the fact that the relentless pursuit of production and consumption is pushing the earth to its geophysical limits. A durable solution to the climate crisis requires not only technological ingenuity but new ways of thinking. It must flow from an organic understanding of the place of human beings in the biosphere, one consistent with hard fact, not with greed and ambition.  Our assumption that we’re a  privileged species entitled to exploit the earth’s natural treasures for our own advancement lies at the root of the crisis. We need instead a vision committed to both ecological sustainability and economic and social justice. We have to realize that we are an integral part of the earth’s web of life, and as such must accept our humble place within the whole. At the same time, we must enable  human communities to flourish in harmony with each other and the natural world. In short, we must shift our priorities away from the pursuit of endless economic growth toward an affirmation of the integral human good, which involves both a thriving natural world and social justice for the human population.

One key to meeting both objectives at the same time lies in transforming our models of agriculture. Roughly half of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and food production, which currently depend on fossil fuels for energy, chemical inputs, transportation, and preservation. Few proposals to mitigate climate change brought forward at international meetings take account of the close correlation between climate change and agriculture, yet the connection has been strongly emphasized by Oxfam, the World Resources Institute, the Earth Policy Institute, and peasant organizations around the world.

The international peasant movement, Via Campesina, which has more than 250 million members worldwide, contends that the market-based policies offered to reduce carbon emissions—policies such as REDD and Climate-Smart Agriculture–not only fail to sufficiently cut emissions but also undermine the interests of small-scale farmers and indigenous populations. REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) allows corporations and rich industrialized nations to purchase tracts of forest in the global South to offset the carbon they release at home. Spokespersons for Via Campesina hold this program permits these major emitters to continue releasing high levels of carbon in their own countries while gaining nominal credit for reductions they promote elsewhere. Since carbon emissions cannot be sealed off within their lands of origin, this policy, they argue, is closer to sleight-of-hand magic than to a real solution.

Climate-Smart Agriculture, another strategy advanced to stem global warming, basically takes the tenets of REDD and applies them to farmland. Climate-Smart Agriculture seeks to impose new biotechnology on farmers around the world—genetically modified seeds, chemical pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers—creating yet another wave of dependency on markets. Investors from the global North receive carbon credits for their contribution to Climate-Smart Agriculture projects in the global South, thus increasing speculation within the food system by expanding its profit value. Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, a Haitian Via Campesina leader, says: “There’s absolutely nothing smart about it. The climate crisis is rooted in capitalism, which is also in crisis as an economic system. Entrepreneurs are trying to emerge from this crisis, and as a way of doing so are creating green capitalism, of which Climate-Smart Agriculture is typical.”

Via Campesina and its allies hold that solving the climate crisis requires replacing the industrial model of agriculture with an alternative that respects the planet’s natural limits and takes advantage of its restorative capacities. The model they propose revolves around the twin principles of food sovereignty and agroecology. Food sovereignty holds that rural working people and their urban counterparts, not corporations and market interests, should be at the center of the global food system.  Agroecology, the practice for realizing food sovereignty, makes use of ecological methods that have proved their worth over many generations. Though fears have been expressed about its ability to produce sufficient food, Olivier de Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, allays these fears in his March 2011 report to the Human Rights Council: “Agroecology can double food production in entire regions within ten years, while mitigating climate change and alleviating rural poverty.”

Whereas the prevailing food system subordinates the environment to the market economy, the model of food sovereignty corrects this “inversion” by viewing the economy as a subsidiary of the planet’s larger ecosystem. The model respects the earth’s natural limits and also seeks to promote true human flourishing. Rather than looking on the food system as a source of profit, the ideal of food sovereignty is to empower the small-scale farmers who actually produce the food. It sees “small” not only as beautiful but as an essential key to our survival.

The commitment to food sovereignty unites two needs that often pull us in opposite directions: environmental sustainability and social justice, the need to block the advance of climate change and to eradicate extreme poverty, especially in rural communities.  Thus, to meet these twin goals, a shift in energy production from fossil fuels to renewable energy must be matched by a corresponding shift in agriculture, from one that extols the big and wealthy to one that respects the potentials of  small-scale farmers. As Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, the Haitian Via Campesina leader, says: “Peasant agriculture can feed the world and cool the planet.”


One response to “Small Is Not Only Beautiful … It May Be the Key to Our Survival!

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