Sunday, December 27, 2009

Locavores need to read Dies The Fire

Note to the slow-food movement, locavores, and hobby farmers: you didn't invent farming. Most of you come from non-farm households, and you don't know what goes into full-scale farming. If you don't know your history, you're doomed to repeat it.

And repeating history is exactly the worst thing to do, since history without rose-colored glasses and politically correct rewriting is a nasty, ugly place where people lived short, hard lives, filled with sickness and death. When people spent 90% of their lives and times focused on finding food, it didn't leave much time for advancements and refinements. As soon as people got their hands on fire, they started cooking - the oldest traces of human habitation show that when we got our hands on a way to sterilize, cook, soften, and make food more palatable and digestive, we figured out this was a good thing and hung onto it. Once we got ahold of starches we could plant and replant for a predictable food supply, we became able to free up time from hunting, foraging, and scavenging to come up with writing, and technology.

The industrial revolution didn't happen because of some massive media propaganda machine convincing people that evil, dark, dirty, dangerous cities were the place to be. Heck, you look back at the casualty rates, and the loss of life and limb in the early revolution, and then sit and think to yourself: how bad was farming, then, that people flocked to the cities, ran to the cities, deserting house and homes, farms and villages?

You have inherited cities that are clean and shining, free of the choking coal soot, of night-soil tossed in the gutters for rain to wash away. You have inherited streets not only paved, but free of dung and attendant swarms of flies - cities so clean you rarely see the rats, anymore. Even the thick, foul smog from car exhaust from your childhood is gone, leaving only a haze. Technology has gifted blue-sky days, where the north side of Chicago doesn't even remember what it was like to live by the mold of the penicillin factory, and the south side does not remember the smell of stockyards, so surprised when the "clean country air" smells like pigs.

I agree with you that duck and chickens raised in labor-intensive environments, by loving people who often have a second income to support the household, modern medicine, vaccination, air conditioning, electric or natural gas heat, running water, and access to power tools and vehicles to help, can be incredibly delicious. I agree that small-scale-farmed vegetables are delicious, and it's really fun to try heirloom varieties of vegetables.

But when you start complaining with one breath that "living simply takes a lot of money" and with another showing just how much work went into your homemade cheese and why it costs so much at the farmer's market, I will look at you with cold eyes and note that both of these prove that small scale labor-intensive organic hobby-farming will not feed a nation. The fact that we have so little agricultural land and so few farmers, yet live in a nation that tends toward obese and exports food to the world, is not accidental or unrelated. You can compete in quality. You can compete in giving shoppers warm fuzzies. You are right when you point out that you are not Monsanto and that's a good thing. However, you cannot feed the world, and frankly, you should not try to convince the world that it all needs to join you. When you start saying "all the world needs for peace is to eat locally", I'm going to point to SM Stirling and say "The SCA's been tripping down that track for years. Save it for your big fantasy novel and sell me those tomatoes."

Because they're really good tomatoes, and with the fresh basil someone else raised and the fresh goat's milk cheese somebody who actually raises goats because they like goats has made, my non-farm-income money is going to have some luxury food tonight. On the other hand, I'm having kiwi fruit from New Zealand in my dessert. Why would I eat only expensive slow food as a locavore when I can live better than any king of an agricultural kingdom in history?


  1. The one really good observation from "Dies the Fire" I thought was that only here in the first world do people have the luxury to learn the old ways of doing things for fun... and as such in a collapse might actually be better off than many of those in developing nations. I'd sure miss the Thai tea, chocolate from who knows where, and Kiwi fruits though.

    That said, I think Ringo's There Will Be Dragons has it all over Dies the Fire. More flexibility of premise, more believable cultural development... and most importantly, Herzer could stomp ol' Bearkiller six ways from Sunday and be hot as heck doing it.


    Both have a pretty darned awesome soundtrack though. Axes flash, broadswords swing....

  2. John Ringo also covered this in painful detail in the first half of The Last Centurion where he addresses the whys and hows behind farming.

  3. I loved that book (and the next two sequels...the second trilogy, not so much), but I thought that if anything the pain and hassle of mud farming was drastically UNDER portrayed. Everyone pauses every few pages to reflect "well, there are down sides, but WOW it feels great to live in a state of nature".

    Look, I like backpacking and the woods and the smell of trees and all of that ... but give me civilization, and medicines so that my godkids and nieces don't die of minor colds. Losing technology would be HELL.