Two-beer Technology

In the current issue of the magazine, John Schwenkler and David Cloutier revisit the pope's encyclical on economics, Caritas in veritate, and argue that, if we're looking for ways to make our economy more humane and sustainable, we should begin with food:

We are used to thinking of love and care as domestic rather than ecomomic virtues. But as Pope Benedict has written in Caritas in veritate, authentically human social relationships of friendship, solidarity, and reciprocity can also be conducted within economic activity, and not only outside it or after it. In other words, Christian caritas (from which we get both the words care and charity) is not merely a private affair outside economic relations, or even an add-on of charitable giving that occurs after the market has done its work. Rather, love belongs within the relations of the marketplace. The pope calls for economic forms that go beyond the exclusively binary model of market-plus-state. What is needed, Benedict writes, is a profoundly new way of understanding business enterprise. He recommends mutualist or cooperative economic principles and organizations that embody the twin goods of solidarity and subsidiarity.It is tempting to dismiss this vision as a pipe dream: What would it mean, for example, for large-scale investment banking to be animated by gratuitousness and love? There may be good answers to that question, but they arent obvious. Our food economy, by contrast, is a case in which we already have before us a range of opportunities to incorporate the logic of caritas into our ordinary routines. Not only are organic and sustainable farming methods better for the environment, not only are the foods they produce better for our bodies, but the forms of economic exchange they enable tend to be ones in which authentically human social relationships can take root. At farmers markets, producers meet consumers, consumers meet one another, and products are bought and sold in ways that sustain local communities rather than international corporations. (One study found that customers have ten times more conversations at farmers markets than they do at supermarkets.) Similarly, community gardens and CSA programs bring people together and connect them even more directly with the source of their food, while grocery cooperatives embody a business model that seeks the common good and supports local economies on a scale beyond that of farmers markets. In all this there is the possibility of restoring care to a sector of life where the imperatives for growth have done so much to exclude it.

Behind the problems of industrial agriculture, Schwenkler and Cloutier write, is the problem of our society's simplistic attitude toward technology:

Despite a lot of evidence that, at a certain point, labor-replacing technology can create more problems than it solves, we continue to believe in it without reservations: the more technology, the better. The essayist (and Methodist Sunday school teacher) Bill McKibben jokes that our society is like a person who drinks two beers, feels good, and therefore decides that drinking ten beers will make him feel five times better. What we need is a technology that operates on the two-beer scale, what the economist E. F. Schumacher called a human-scale technology, which enables small producers to work effectivelyand with nature rather than against it. One well-known example in the food world is the development of small mobile chicken coops and pig pens, which allow a farmer to move animals gradually around between grazing grounds (to prevent overgrazing), while also allowing the animals waste to refertilize the same ground that feeds them.Does this mean that traditional and small-scale methods of food production will once more be able to feed the world, as proponents of industrial agriculture claim only their methods can? This is an empirical question, and we dont yet know enough to be certain of the answer. But we can be certain of this: In a rich and fertile country like the United States, we could do much more local, small-scale agriculture without courting calamity. To begin with, we could try to chart a course between the extremes of bioengineered monocultures and a purist emphasis on the organic label, each of which presents its own set of problems.

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Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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