Dirty fingernails. Thick work boots. A hat and long sleeves. Clothes smell like soil and animals. A shed full of tools. A day spent caring for animals and plants. An encyclopedic knowledge of the life that populates the land he or she lives on. Sees nature everywhere. Intuitively knows how much rainfall there has been recently. Life is determined by the hours of sunrise and sunset.
Clean hands. Dress shoes. A collared shirt. Smells like shampoo. A laptop. A day spent writing reports based on algorithms. An encyclopedic knowledge of climate science models. Sees nature in designated ‘human-free’ parks. Checks the daily weather on their phone and forgets. Life spent basking in the glow of artificial light.
Which of these people inform policy about what happens to our natural world? Of course it’s the highly-educated, wealthy, urban, liberal environmentalist. Why is this? Because we have an obsession with technocrats. We think they will use the magic of science to solve everything for us. They know better than all of us. They are smarter. We didn’t get the grades they got in school. They have doctorates. They are affiliated with prestigious institutions. They are our high priests.
I know this because as someone with a doctorate from the Global North I gain entry into such conversations about solutions easily. More often than not, I use that key to entry to amplify the voices of those much wiser and more knowledgeable than me about nature and ecology.
But what if we started listening to that first person, the ecologically-informed farmer? What if we could see past work pants and the dirty hands and invite these populations to advise on policy? What kinds of solutions might we see?
Take Mark Shepard, a Wisconsin farmer who has developed a kind of agriculture whose principles could be a model for the world (in fact, are already practiced by peasants around the world). In this short video on silvopasture he explains a solution deeply informed by his lived, experiential ecological knowledge.
Or meet Peter Allen, someone who in the course of earning a PhD in Ecology decided the best way to restore ecosystems was through agriculture, so he started Mastodon Valley Farm. This longer video showcases his depth of understanding of ecology and anthropology, both currently and through time. Seeing this video changed the course of my understanding of agriculture forever.
Or, because subsistence agriculturalists outside the U.S. don’t make quite as many YouTube videos, take a look at the work of Dr. Vandana Shiva, an advocate for peasant farmers around the world. She argues for widespread food sovereignty as a solution with co-benefits such as solving hunger, increasing biodiversity, peace, and much more.
Consider the fact that one of the most robust natural methods of carbon sequestration currently known is something called holistic planned grazing, a form of regenerative agriculture that could actually help to reverse climate change. Yet, the community at the forefront of enacting this solution, farmers, consists in part of climate change skeptics. That’s because some producers care more about soil health, biodiversity, water retention, drought and flood than they do about climate models. Does that mean we throw them out of our coalition as ignorant and backwards? Do we ignore their ability to enact carbon sequestration for the benefit of the planet because they refuse to bow down to our high priests, the technocrats at the IPCC? Of course I am not arguing against science. I am arguing for the fusion of scientific knowledge with other ways of knowing.
Imagine a future where we expect local, national and international regulatory bodies to reserve a seat at the table (with actual power) for not only farmers, but a diverse set of people who live sustainably. Halina reminded me of people like her parents:
“They did not know much about environment, about agriculture or about algorithms. They were urban people, New Yorkers. They lived the lives of sufficiency, small footprint lives of all the needs satisfied: no cars, no big houses, no wasting of anything, no addiction to shopping, no curiosity about the newest and best. Instead: culture, walks in the park, social connections, books, family, intellectual pursuits, fresh air. They are not fixing the Problem, intentionally or not, they just do not create it in the first place.”
There are people everywhere who deserve emulation and have something to teach us about sustainable livelihoods, if we can just open our eyes and invite them into conversation and community.