James H S McGregor

The Countryside and Historic Cities

Democratic victories might change the face of Congress in 2018, but that won’t stop the juggernaut of Trump era environmental deregulation.  We need a constitutional amendment to do that.  And now, surprisingly, is the time to fight for one.

Trump is a divisive leader whose political instincts urge him to keep his base in a state of rabid excitation but never prompt him to reach out to the electorate as a whole .  His senior staff come and go at an alarming rate.  Despite key (and deeply divisive) judiciary appointments and his tax code revisions—remember those?—his overall record of legislative success is slim.  When it comes to the environment, though, the Trump machine has been highly successful in its campaign to roll back protections.   Harvard Law School maintains an online Environmental Regulation Rollback Tracker (http://environment.law.harvard.edu/policy-initiative/regulatory-rollback-tracker/).

 Their list currently includes forty-eight federal regulations protecting public land or limiting air and water pollution that have been rescinded or significantly revised since Trump took office. 

So, yes, it would be great if more Democrats were elected to Congress and the legislative branch became a counterforce instead of a wholly owned subsidiary of the Trump machine.  But even a hard to imagine Democratic sweep of both houses could do little to protect our environment; and it will not put us back on track to fight the carbon emissions driving climate change.  From the time of Teddy Roosevelt right up to today, environmental protection has relied primarily on executive action.  Even our landmark legislative achievements in environmental protection rely on executive action for their enforcement and themselves face significant threats today.  The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Clean Air and Water Acts, the Clean Power Plan are among the top targets on this administration’s hit list. 

Activist presidents have used their discretionary powers to broaden environmental regulation, a move that does nothing to secure their constitutional underpinnings.  Using the same executive powers for anti-environmental ends has been the Trump administration’s dark tactic.  The results have been and will continue to be disastrous for the health of our people and our planet.

Making environmental protection more secure requires that its home office move from the West Wing to a safe place in our fundamental law.  We need a constitutional amendment guaranteeing to every US citizen the right to a healthy environment.  Six US States, five Canadian provinces, multiple cities, and more than one hundred nations worldwide ground their environmental policies on explicit constitutional guarantees.  In the mid-1990’s, Rodger Schlickeisen, then president of Defenders of Wildlife, led a nationwide campaign to add an environmental amendment to the US Constitution.  It stated   

The natural resources of the nation are the heritage of present and future generations. The right of each person to clean and healthful air and water, and to the protection of the other natural resources of the nation, shall not be infringed upon by any person.

The extreme polarization in contemporary American politics today might suggest that a renewal of this campaign is ludicrously ill-timed.  But on this issue the Trump era is a time of lightning bolt clarity.  Trump’s deregulatory successes show how starkly exposed the environment is not just to its traditional enemies, but to the venality and ill will of those responsible for its care.  Real environmental protection can only be achieved if it stands on a far more solid foundation than our current statutes and practices afford.  When we slog our way back from the slash and burn of Trump’s environmental purges, we need to work for more than a simple restoration of the way things were.  For the protection of ourselves and our world, the environment must find a haven in our constitution. 


Five hundred years ago Cristoforo Sabbadino launched a successful campaign to Save the Venice Lagoon.  Was he the first environmentalist? 

Would the millions who visit Venice each year still come if its canals were waterless and the shallow lake—the Venetian Lagoon—that surrounds the City an expanse of farms and suburbs?   In the mid-sixteenth century, that was what the future promised Venice.  Silt from the rivers that fed the Lagoon threatened to transform it.  A part-time poet and full-time waterman, Cristoforo Sabbadino launched a campaign that saved the City by preserving its threatened Lagoon.  His success not only preserved what is now a World Heritage Historical site, it also provides a positive example of adaptation in the face of environmental threat.    

Most tourists today see little of the Venice Lagoon, and even that little is uncharacteristic.  The ship channels flanked by pilings that link the airport to the City and the Lido beaches beyond it travel through open water, but the majority of the Lagoon is very different.  Twice each day, as the tides fall, much of the Lagoon becomes a muddy plain webbed with snaking watercourses.  Channels and tidal flats shelter hosts of aquatic and terrestrial plants and animals.  The lagoon is home to shrimp, shellfish and many species of fish that are harvested commercially.  Of some 280 bird species that breed in Italy—many of them rare and endangered—more than half nest in the Lagoon.   During spring and fall migrations and through the long European winter, the Lagoon shelters thousands of transients.  In its unprecedented pairing of the Venetian Lagoon with Venice as a single World Heritage Site, UNESCO pointed to the centuries-long partnership between the urban center and the water surrounding it.  “Venice and its lagoon landscape is the result of… the interaction between people and the ecosystem of their natural environment over time.”  Sabbadino’s campaign to save the Lagoon marks him as the single most influential of those anonymous ‘people.’    


Cristoforo Sabbadino was born in the Republic of Venice in 1487.   In 1542, the Venetian water commission hired him as a hydraulic engineer, and he quickly became their leading expert.  Through conversations with men and women who worked on the water and his own meticulous surveys, he came to know every part of the Lagoon from the Alpine rivers that feed it to the barrier islands that shelter it from the Adriatic.   No one before him had fully comprehended the web of interconnections that made the vast network of waterways a single unit, a lagoon system as it is described today.  Sabbadino thoroughly understood the forces that maintained the Lagoon as a unique habitat, but he also knew the pressures—both natural and political—that threatened to turn it into dry land.

Sabbadino’s campaign to save the Lagoon began with a short poem calling on Venetians to save this precious resource.   It was a concise and urgent appeal that brilliantly summarized Sabbadino’s entire campaign.  In a string of subsequent documents and colorful maps he expanded on its contents.  The poem’s first stanza landed hard on the issue of homeland security, always a hot button issue.  Sabbadino described the Lagoon as a moat-like defensive perimeter; drained of its waters it would offer no protection against invasion by the City’s many enemies.  In following stanzas, the poem identified the major force destroying the Lagoon and how it could be countered.  The rivers that flowed into the Lagoon, the poem said, were slowly filling it with silt; unchecked they would transform it.  To end the silting, the City must build diversionary canals to bypass the Lagoon and carry the rivers with their silt directly into the Adriatic Sea.

Strong opposition to Sabbadino’s plan came from powerful men who expected to grow richer as the Lagoon dried up and transformed itself into valuable farmland.  Fortunately Sabbadino’s arguments won out over theirs, and Venice launched a comprehensive campaign carried on through centuries to save the Lagoon by redirecting the rivers that fed it.  Without Sabbadino’s careful study, his well- reasoned plan of action and his advocacy for the Lagoon, Venice would be a far different and far less magical place today.   Cristoforo Sabbadino may not have been the first environmentalist (many would grant that title to St. Francis of Assisi though I argued against that in an earlier post) but he is without doubt the first to conceive an environmental project and push it through to success.


Thinking like a garden

Men with blasting caps and bulldozers have been pushing the earth around for a long time and seem to believe they can go on doing so forever.  Gardeners know better.  They know that earth is patient but not infinitely so.  The seasoned gardener has learned—usually the hard way—that earth works best in partnership. 

At least since the harnessing of steam power and with ever increasing intensity since the invention of the diesel powered tractor, earth movers have taken charge of the planet’s fate and well-being, though their efforts and their ideals have not gone unchallenged.  Protectors of wilderness and lovers of untamed nature have again and again faced off against them.  These two opposing forces—with government supporting now one side, now the other—have been entrenched in a battle where there is no middle ground.  The developers demand unlimited power to reshape the earth to fit their plans.  Conservationists want to hold on to what they can save;  they believe that the big decisions about how the earth is to change should be decided by the play of natural forces.

The state and fate of nature have not always been debated in such hostile terms.  The rift at the heart of contemporary environmental policy-making is not that much older than the steam engine.  Before about 1800, the environment was understood in ways that contrast starkly with our own ideas about nature.   Wilderness, the ideal most dear to environmentalists today, was something that eighteenth century people—and countless generations before them—avoided at all cost.  Dramatic scenery that thrilled the men and women of the nineteenth century—and still inspires us today—prompted travelers of every preceding century to rethink their itineraries.  When eighteenth century men and women were forced to pass through the Swiss Alps or the Appalachians, they gritted their teeth and prepared for hardship.  The environment that appealed to Europeans and Americans alike until about 1750 was not a wilderness but a neighborhood of farms.  The nearly universal picture of nature was a landscape where cultivated fields, gardens, pastures and woodlots were mixed in a pleasing patchwork.  If you asked men and women of that era what landform represented nature best, they would respond without hesitation, “a garden.”    

That view was not some fad of the eighteenth century like Marie Antoinette’s shepherd’s cottage at Versailles.  It carried on a very ancient tradition with roots that reached back more than ten thousand years to the invention of agriculture.   The ancient civilizations that pioneered plant and animal domestication quickly came to understand their place in the world in relation to this remarkable innovation.  They did not idealize nature as the lovers of wilderness do.  They did not see it as something apart from their own communities as most of us are prone to do;  and they did not think of themselves as exploiters or violators of nature as many conservationists today believe. 

These ancient peoples were cultivators, gardeners.  They fully understood that what they grew was all that kept them alive.  They understood that they were part of a natural continuum that stretched from their village through their fields and pastures to the wild places where people seldom ventured.  They saw themselves as partners with nature.  It was a limited partnership to be sure.  Humans held some of the power in their own hands.  They decided what, when and where to plant, cultivate and harvest.  They extended the order of the village into the fields and made them organized places where crops grew in neat rows.  But they were equally aware of the limits to their control.  They knew full well how strong a hand their partner held.  Without the cooperation of soil, rain, wind, sunlight and weather—elements over which they had no power—their crops would fail, and the weakest among them would starve and die.

The book of Genesis is one of the best known encapsulations of this ancient cultivator’s point of view, though this has not always been recognized.  In the creation story that it details, God placed Adam and Eve in a garden and gave them two sets of instructions.  In Genesis 1:28, he commanded them to be “fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over … every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  “Subdue,” “have dominion over:”  these imperatives are accurate translations of a Hebrew verb that  denotes the power of a queen over her subjects or a master over his slaves.  This divine ordinance is often quoted to justify unrestrained development and consumption of the earth’s resources. Because of this phrase, many environmentalists blame the Biblical tradition for apparently authorizing unlimited exploitation.

If this statement stood alone, both sides would be right, and we would be faced again with an irreconcilable rift between developers and environmentalists.  But Genesis gives a second account of the creation, and God issues a second command to humans, one that is very different in its tone and implications.  In Genesis 2:7, we are told that “The Lord God formed man out of the dust of the ground.”  Dust implies detritus, but the Hebrew word actually means ‘arable soil.’  The word for arable soil in Hebrew is “ha ‘adamah.”  It is the source of the first man, Adam, and it is echoed in his name.  Adam was formed from good garden soil and his name commemorates his creation.  Adam could properly be described as  a natural born gardener.  Adam’s role in the garden of Eden, where God put him after his creation, is according to Genesis 2:15, “to till it and to keep it.”  The verbs here are just the opposite in tone to the ones employed a few verses before.  The Hebrew here suggests subservience rather than dominance.  The garden has first priority here, and the human task is to take care of the garden and to see that its needs are met.

There is no justification for choosing one of these verses over the other, though the “dominion” text is much more widely repeated than the ‘service’ text.  And while they might appear contradictory to many people, a gardener will recognize that they are actually complementary.  Through these two distinct depictions of the relationship between humans and the natural world, Genesis captures both sides of the gardener’s experience.  Sometimes the gardener is the dominant partner who shapes nature to her will; at other times she is the subordinate partner responsible for the care of what she has planted but with limited power to guarantee its success. 

In effect Genesis and the gardener that it describes includes both sides of the current environmental standoff.  And it is cultivators who hold the key to moving beyond that standoff.  Unlimited development that ignores the limits and constraints that earth imposes is doomed to failure.  So the gardener cannot fully support the engineer’s ambition to reshape the earth.  Perhaps more surprisingly, the gardener is at odds with the conservationist as well.   Leaving nature alone and simply trying to protect those steadily diminishing wild areas of earth that remain will not repair the damage.   While it is important from many points of view to preserve wilderness, conservation alone is no longer sufficient to solve today’s environmental problems.  Two hundred, even a hundred fifty years ago, it would have been possible for earth to repair itself by halting development and letting nature take its course.  But that is no longer true. On every geographical scale, the local, regional, national and international, the earth has been pushed beyond the limit of its resilience, beyond the point where it can heal itself and restore its damaged harmonies.

The whole earth has become like an abandoned weedy field.  There is no longer a significant area of the world that lies beyond human influence and is pristine.  Atmospheric pollution and global warming, both caused by human activity, have taken care of that.  Though we are not in control everywhere, we have taken a place in every life zone on this planet.  The atmosphere we have filled with pollutants, and the climate that we have warmed are our representatives on the Himalayan peaks, in the Sea of Azov and along the mid-Atlantic Ridge.  If nature is only to be understood as something beyond our reach—as wilderness—then nature, as Bill McKibben declared some decades ago, has ended.

Such an earth is alien terrain both to the developer who is surprised by our planet’s apparent refusal to put up with endless abuse.  It is alien to the conservationist who sees little hope of holding on.  But it is familiar terrain to the gardener.  This earth is a neglected and abused terrain both capable of and in extreme need of care and cultivation.  With sensitivity to the limits of its resources, we can cultivate what is best in any region of it.  That cultivation may take unfamiliar forms, but it will still be gardening.  Whether it is replanting a rain forest in the Amazon or rebuilding the habitat of an endangered species like the spotted owl or the black footed ferret, the balancing of what preserves the earth and what humans need to live will be the essential task.  No one is better able to make such judgments than someone who shares the experience and the point of view of a gardener.  Neither fully dominant nor fully submissive, she has both the will to change the earth and the understanding of when its powers and inclinations are to be respected.


High School Biology Revisited

At a library book sale not long ago, I picked up a high school biology textbook published in l937.  DNA was unknown then; vitamins were a mystery just coming into focus; and acknowledging evolution would have been taboo in many American states.  Still, taking into account advancements in knowledge, I imagined that I knew what to expect in any high school biology text, even one this old.   I turned out to be wrong, and it was not the science in the book that surprised me, but its approach.    The end papers showed a rural landscape.   In the foreground two Boy Scouts in shorts, high socks, and Smokey Bear hats stand beside a tree.  One holds a fishing rod while the other spreads a picnic on the ground.  Their dog roots in a hollow at the tree’s base. Beyond, in the middle distance cattle graze in a pasture, there is a farm farther out, then woodland and a distant town. 

The book’s approach was just as surprising.  Rather than an overview of the chemistry of life or the plant and animal phyla, chapter one covered the domestic apple tree, the insects that aid or attack it at each stage in its life, and the work required to develop and cultivate new varieties.   The authors’ stated aim in grounding their book in rural life was to begin with, “something we are all familiar with.”  In l937, most American high school students had a farm in their not too remote background;  they could hardly have imagined how few had a farm in their future. 

But back then farm life was a familiar platform on which the text’s authors could base a study of both the theory and practical applications of biological science.  They were probably completely unaware and unconcerned that relying on agriculture as a doorway to knowledge of the greater biological community—to nature—followed a millennial tradition.  About ten thousand years ago, as the hunter-gatherer societies of the ancient Levant gradually adopted life ways based on cultivation and domestication, an entirely new conception of the natural world came into focus.  The archaeological evidence suggests that belief systems rooted in prey animals gradually gave way to an understanding of life both biological and human that refocused itself around the cultivated field.  On one edge of the cultivated lands stood, both physically and conceptually, the village with its patterned life.  At the field’s further border lived plant and animal communities that reflected a different order.  Centered between the two, and dependent on both, was the cultivated field where a partnership both real and idealized was continually being worked out between the human and biological communities.  While wilderness is our most common exemplification of the ideal of nature, the cultivated field was theirs.  And it remained a meaningful symbol of nature in some contexts through the middle of the last century.

In choosing agriculture for their conceptual gateway to the study of biology, the authors were unlikely to have recognized this ancient pattern.  And though in abandoning it ourselves in favor of a wilderness based view of nature and an abstract biology we have made undoubted gains, there have also been significant losses. In substituting an objectified, scientific biology for a lived and experienced natural world we have, as the naturalist Robert Finch once suggested, “been trained to feel that life and death are things to be observed and consumed rather than to be participated in.”  With far greater consequence we have in our rejection of agriculture as a mediator between the human and biological communities come perilously close to misperceiving what it is that sustains human life on earth at present and for the foreseeable future.

Sadly agriculture in its present state offers little hope of again fulfilling its former role.  And the approach that the l937 text took to the subject offers a significant clue to why this is so.  While their breakdown of biology emphasized heredity and environment, they also asserted that “man’s control of these things”  was an important part of their study as well.  With its chemical addictions, its inhumane treatment of animals, its narrowing range of cultivars, and its flirtations with genetically modified crops, contemporary agriculture has carried ‘control’ to an unsustainable extreme.  In doing so, it has ceased to be  symbol of human partnership with the earth and become the poster child of blatant environmental irresponsibility.

 It is still the case, however, that this corrupted and despised institution remains the lifeline of every community throughout the world.  Through its unprecedented effort at the domination of nature, agriculture has lost its way and at the same time lost its power to mediate between the human and biological communities.  But disgust with agriculture and contempt for its practices comes at a steep price.  Dismissing agriculture as unworthy of our attention has meant that we are left in the most profound ignorance of what our well-being, indeed our very continuance as a species depends on. 

In the broadest sense, what sustains the world today is the fruit of a handful of Neolithic revolutions carried out at various times in different parts of the world.  These revolutions—one centered in the ancient Levant, one in South China and one in northwest South America—with little or no interconnection among them transformed societies in parallel ways.  They enlarged populations and made communities more complex, more interdependent, stable and expansive.  What powered each of these so-called Neolithic Revolutions was the domestication of once wild plants and animals. 

Hard as it may be to believe, we are still dependent on these Neolithic discoveries. Our daily nourishment is the interest paid by ancient investments in cropping and domestication.  Every day we eat foods that have been traced genetically to ancient wild ancestors.  Wheat, even GMO wheat, retains its ancestral link to wild grasses of the West Asian steppes first brought into cultivation somewhere in the Jordan valley.  Rice is ancestrally related to wild grasses of South China.  Corn, one of today’s most commonly cultivated and widely consumed foods is a descendent of Teosinte, a wild grass still found in Mexico and Central America. 

Perhaps in 1937, high school students knew where apples came from and were willing to learn what it took to secure the crop.  Today most of us know little and care less about either topic.  And though the apple tree, or the beef cow or the corn field may no longer be considered proper themes for high school biology, they need to be themes for some part of our national curriculum.    The authors of this l937 biology textbook got many things wrong.  Their faith in “man’s control” of nature is tragically misguided. That orientation must be rejected before agriculture can hope to fill its historic role as mediator between the human and natural worlds. But they did get one important thing right:  they knew as we must again acknowledge that the production of what nourishes us is too important to all of us not to be recognized and universally taught.


Each year on Earth Day, I like to reread one of the founding documents of environmentalism.  This year I’ve chosen the Constitution:

Sponsored by the President of the Republic, the Charter for the Environment was adopted on the 28th of February in 2005 by the Parliament meeting a Versailles. .. Overall the Charter puts the principle of environmental protection on the same level as the Rights of Man and the Citizen of 1789 and those of the economic and social rights of the Constitutional preamble of l946.  The Charter recognizes the right of everyone to live in a sustainable, healthy environment; to have access to information gathered by public authorities; and to participate in public decisions with environmental impact.  While this act grants rights to all, it also imposes duties.  Everyone must therefore contribute to the preservation and the amelioration of the environment, and should the need arise contribute to the repair of damages it sustains…

Sadly, this is not the US Constitution, which is a monumental achievement in political organization but a disappointment as far as the environment is concerned.  This is the French Constitution and it does not stand alone:  similar provisions for environmental protection are now found in nearly one hundred national constitutions worldwide and in the constitutions of six US states.   Of course, we could not expect “environment” which is a very modern term to appear in the US Constitution, but it is remarkable that the word “nature” which was a buzzword in eighteenth century social, political and philosophical debate is also absent.

 Jefferson invoked nature twice in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence.  He justified the colonies’ drive for autonomy by appealing to inherent rights guaranteed to every human being and every human collective by “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.”  As every eighteenth century statesman knew, theorists since the age of Aristotle had conceptualized human social organization either as natural to our species or as a rational response to natural conditions.  Reasoning from what they imagined to be the conditions of human beings “in a state of nature,” seventeenth and eighteenth century philosophers extrapolated principles of good government.  Though they did not by any means agree on the best form of government, they were unanimous in accepting the wisdom ofthinking about government from a base in natural law.  It was this tradition that Jefferson was echoing in his draft of the Preamble.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the drafters of the Constitution, meeting less than a dozen years later, felt no need to anchor their novel government to this traditional foundation.     The Preamble of the Constitution refers only to an agreement among “the People,” who unite in an effort to ensure services and benefits for themselves and their posterity.  What the people sign on to is a social contract with nuts and bolts articles meant to insure the complex integration of a clutch of former colonies within an unprecedented national organization.  From an eighteenth century point of view, the absence of any form of natural justification is bold.  In time as the nation grew and thrived justification became less important, and the American Constitution became a model for constitutional governments in every part of the world. 

The effect of the document’s silence on the theme of nature for us today has a very different meaning.  Justification no longer matters, but we cannot ignore the consequences for the environment of the founders’ silence.  The struggle for environmental responsibility and the continuing hostility environmentalism has met with in American history are in large measure the legacy of that silence.  If the founders had not so radically separated our state from nature in its infancy, would we find ourselves in the fix we are in now?

The French were among the first to echo the American innovation of government founded on a public contract.  Their Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen is, like the US Constitution, entirely concerned with social issues.  But unlike us, the French have recognized and remedied the limitations of their founding document.  Their response is the crucial Charter for the Environment passed into law in 2005.  As desirable as it would be for the United States to follow suit, our political process is today so polarized and so degenerate that there is no possibility of any such amendment being debated let alone accepted.  So for this Earth Day at least, all we can do is look in envy to our many, many world neighbors who are setting the political example today as we once did, and wish that our representatives had the good sense to follow along.

On St. Francis as Environmental Champion

The Pope’s recent encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, makes remarkable strides in recognizing global warming and the social damage it causes.  And while the Pope’s bold stance on these issues is certainly welcome, the philosophical grounding of the encyclical and the characteristics of its sponsoring saint ultimately limit its ability to guide us in the monumental task of repairing the damaged earth. 

Early in his pontificate, Pope John Paul II officially recognized St. Francis as the patron of ecologists.  In his brief explanation of that appointment, the then pope referred to Francis’ poem of praise—Blessed be thou oh Lord,--i.e. Laudato, si’…--as evidence of the saint’s love for all the elements of the divine creation, principally the sun, moon and stars whom Francis portrays as his siblings.  St. Francis’ repudiation of his father’s wealth and his concern for the poor ground the new pope’s ambitious social program. 


Alone among medieval saints, Francis showed a sensitivity to and interest in the lives of creatures other than human beings.  He preached to birds, advised rabbits and fish on eluding capture, and, according to one legend, convinced a man-eating wolf to give up his rapacious ways.  In the context of a religion that the historian Lynn White portrayed as “the most anthropocentric in history,” this openness to other beings is unparalleled.  Francis has credentials that are unmatched within the circle of Catholic saints, but the field is limited to say the least, and before joining the chorus of his admirers, it makes sense to askwhat Francis’ interactions with the natural world were based on and where the saint’s ideals would take the contemporary environmental movement.


What emerges from the many anecdotes that connect Francis with members of the animal kingdom, or indeed with the sun and moon, is a sense of mutuality among creatures.  This mutuality is founded on a shared recognition of the identity of their divine Creator.  Many of the animal stories about Francis have their origin in a key passage about the created world in the Confessions of the fifth century Christian theologian, St. Augustine.  In his search for the identity of God, St. Augustine imagines asking his fellow beings who God is.  Each creature in turn replies, “We are not Him, but He made us.”  As Francis addresses them the creatures acknowledge not only their debt of gratitude to their Creator but their duty of respect to the saint who is his representative on earth. 


The ecology that St. Francis represents, then, rests on belief in the divine creation of the world.  For St. Francis and for Catholic orthodoxy, nature derives its value, and we derive our responsibility to it from a recognition of the fellowship among created beings who turn each in his or her own way towards the overarching presence of God. We have no direct connection with or duties toward the world in and of itself.   St. Augustine understood this very well, and the recurrent answer of the beings he questions is also intended to remind his readers that nature is not a god, as the Greeks and Romans believed, nor are the creatures in it deities as many religions throughout the world have taught.  In other words, while Francis may be an attractive figure to non-Catholics, he cannot perform the role of ecological sponsor in any but the most superficial way unless one accepts God as central to any human experience of nature.  While this may come easily to persons of faith, few others of us imagine that only God can connect us authentically with the natural world.


Pope Francis also honors St. Francis as a champion of the poor.  The Pope fully understands the hardship that environmental degradation has imposed on the poorest in today’s world.  The destruction of indigenous lifestyles, the predation of local fisheries by industrial nations, and the forced abandonment of traditional agriculture are only some of the ways in which contemporary environmental degradation has hurt the poorest nations and communities disproportionately.  The compassion that St. Francis felt for the poor, Pope Francis asserts, is united with the compassion that he expressed for the animals that he addressed. 


If compassion were enough, Francis would be an unimpeachable environmental champion, but the current environmental crisis requires a differently grounded and far more active response.  Climate instability may be caused by richer nations and experienced disproportionately by poorer ones, but the effects of climate change are universal.  All of us live in its path, even if the degree of exposure is mitigated by differing social, political and geographical conditions.  We are all endangered by the degradation of the earth, though not yet equally.  As the climate becomes more turbulent, everyone will face increasing risk.  As food producers deplete aquifers, as introduced pests invade local waters, as acid rain destroys forests and polluted air increases respiratory disease, the presumed protections offered by wealth and national stability will melt away just as surely as the Arctic ice. 


Compassion is a double-edged sword.  It is no great step from an acknowledgement of the suffering of poorer communities and the responsibility of richer ones to a socially divisive blame game.  The poor suffer disproportionately because they are relatively powerless, but that same lack of power disables poorer communities from contributing significantly to ecological and especially to climate repair.  Vilifying richer nations while relying on them to carry the burden of environmental rehab is neither fair nor smart.  Introducing the dialectic of rich vs. poor into the environmental struggle adds an unnecessary and unhelpful complication to an already vexed situation.


There is nothing new in expressing compassion for the victims of environmental disaster, whether they are human or animal.  This attitude has been a staple of the environmental movement for more than a hundred years.  Expressing moral outrage at environmental exploitation and pollution has an equally long tradition.  The pope can hardly be blamed for failing to grasp the essential truth that environmental elegists and polemicists through the years have ignored.  Our primary relation to earth and its environment is biological not ethical; the earth is our ecosystem and the ground of all life.  The natural world is the indispensable substrate upon which universal survival depends.  Treating the environment like yet another 'good cause' is madness.  Until and unless we come to accept the earth as severely damaged but still all that any of us has to live on, we will never be sufficiently motivated to reverse course and repair the damage that universally threatens life on this planet


Islam in the grocery store

Reading the daily news, it seems we have little in common with our Muslim neighbors.  I felt this tension very strongly during a recent trip to Chicago when I happened on a crowd of Muslim demonstrators at Millennium Park.  The crowd of young men dressed in black, moving rhythmically and tapping their chests as Arabic chanting filled the air made me hurry along.   At the edge of the crowd, youngsters with signs were broadcasting a different message.  Their placards proclaimed the importance of all prophets, not just Muhammed but Moses and Jesus as well.  The demonstration was an appeal for unity within a common Western religious heritage. 

In my own work on food history, I’ve discovered a more mundane link with our Muslim neighbors.  Distant in ideals, we are surprisingly closely tied in the grocery store.  All of us owe a debt of gratitude to the many Muslim farmers who over the centuries collected and developed many of our staple foods.

Coffee, that universal beverage, is an Islamic introduction.  Its name in English and every European language is a variant of the Arabic word,  qahwah, a poetic term for wine.  According to legend, the first coffee drinker was a Muslim holy man.  Disappointed in himself because he often fell asleep during late night prayer, the mullah happened one day upon a shepherd who told him about a curious shrub.  Whenever his sheep browsed on this shrub, the shepherd said, they would stay awake all night long running around and playing.  The mullah took berries from this shrub and made himself a strong brew. 

The Qu’ran outlawed intoxicants like beer and wine, but stimulants were tolerated.  Because coffee enhanced alertness, in time it became not only an acceptable drink for the devout, but something that was valued because it contributed to worship.   Piety had nothing to do with European interest in coffee.  At first coffee beans were used for medicinal purposes; by 1640, the beans were being roasted and brewed in Venetian coffee houses, and from there the fad for drinking coffee spread to every part of the world.  Coffee cultivation began in the Horn of Africa and travelled first to the Arabian Peninsula. Arabica coffees are one of the most common varieties sold today.  Moka, a port city in Yemen, gave us the word mocha which now means a coffee-chocolate blend.  The Dutch introduced coffee trees in their East Asian colonies, and the name Java, later shortened to Joe, was added to the coffee vocabulary. 

Bananas are also a Muslim contribution to the American diet and the world economy.  Arab merchants trading in the Far East first tasted bananas in Indonesia.  Cultivation began in Islamic Egypt in the mid-seventh century.  As Islam spread across North Africa, the banana tree followed.  Fifteenth century Portuguese explorers encountered the banana in the West African country of Guinea.  Friar Tomas de Berlanga brought the first banana plants to the Caribbean.  Cultivation quickly spread throughout Mexico and South America. 

Muslim farmers first cultivated and exported pepper, cane sugar, oranges, tangerines, grapefruit, pineapple, artichokes, eggplants, cantaloupes, watermelon and spinach.  They introduced Semolina wheat, the source of both couscous and pasta.  They brought cotton from India, and bred it into an annual plant able to thrive in temperate climates worldwide.  Imagine the American South without cotton or watermelon.  Italy without pasta; no coffee in Brazil; peanut butter without bananas; no Starbucks anywhere!  Our world would be a starkly different place without the rich heritage of foods introduced by Muslim farmers. In the supermarket what we share far outweighs what divides us. 


Republican Ground Game

The Republican Party Platform for 2016 pledges to cripple the Environmental Protection Agency, cancel the Paris Agreement on Climate and repeal landmark environmental laws. While Americans are watching the debates and waiting for the star quarterbacks to get into the game, the Republican second team is making steady gains on the ground.  A Republican assault on the Clean Water Act is well underway in the Senate.   Congressional forces are mobilizing for an all-out attack on the EPA.   Voters who care about environmental protection really need to keep their eye on the ball this election season.

The Clean Water Act, as its name implies, aims to prevent pollution of the waters of the United States.  The pending attack on this key environmental statute is trumpeted in a report by staff serving the Republican majority members of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee.  That report accuses the EPA and the Army Corps of engineers, the agencies responsible for enforcing the Act, of lying to the courts, the public and Congress.  The report asserts that “the positions taken by these agencies in jurisdictional determinations and in litigation are factually false.”  The same report concludes that agency efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act represent “many of the most extreme overreaches of federal authority asserted by these agencies.”   These “findings” published on September 20, echo assertions in the Republican Party Platform published months before.  There the two agencies’ efforts to protect inland waters was labelled “a travesty” and an improper extension of “the government’s jurisdiction over navigable waters into the micro-management of puddles and ditches.”

While the Committee Report on the Clean Water Act is a direct attack, the opening salvo aimed at the EPA is muted.  Majority members of the United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works have written a letter to Gina McCarthy, the EPA director, which begins:

Given the impending presidential transition, it is imperative that Congress and the American public have a clear understanding of the ongoing litigation and the regulatory administrative actions that may be underway or planned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency…

What appears to be a straightforward request for information is in fact a search for evidence to support action already promised in the Republican platform:

We will put an end to the legal practice known as “sue and settle,” in which environmental groups sue federal agencies whose officials are complicit in the litigation so that, with the taxpayers excluded, both parties can reach agreement behind closed doors.

That initiative is only one element in the Party’s comprehensive plan “to shift responsibility for environmental regulation from the federal bureaucracy to the states and to transform the EPA into an independent bipartisan commission, similar to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.” 

Most of America’s state governments are Republican controlled, which guarantees that a shift of environmental regulation to the states would mean less rather than more environmental protection overall.  More significantly, the Constitution, which assigns responsibility for interstate commerce to the federal government, prevents states from taking the nationwide coordinated action that effective environmental protection requires.  State control means separate entities reinventing the wheel on environmental regulation and undertaking measures that cannot extend beyond their boundaries.  The Constitution also guarantees that only the federal government can make international agreements.  Environmental threats like climate change, ocean pollution and over-fishing can only be addressed on the world stage.

In the Golden Age of environmental legislation, it was Richard Nixon, a Republican President, who signed the Clean Water Act in 1972.   Two years before, Nixon had put his signature to the landmark National Environmental Protection Act.  Both acts passed Congress with strong bipartisan support and along with other groundbreaking statutes have underpinned federal environmental protection for half a century.  Ronald Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer.  In his statement on signing, he remarked:

The protocol marks an important milestone for the future quality of the global environment and for the health and well-being of all peoples of the world. Unanimous approval of the protocol by the Senate on March 14th demonstrated to the world community this country's willingness to act promptly and decisively in carrying out its commitments to protect the stratospheric ozone layer from the damaging effects of chlorofluorcarbons and halons

Bipartisanship was the key to our foundational environmental legislation and Republicans of the Nixon and Reagan eras were proud to call themselves environmentalists.  Sadly today’s Republican leaders are not.  And though Republicans and their presidential candidate are often at odds with one another, on climate change—which Trump has called “a hoax”—and on environmental regulation, the candidate and the party march in lockstep.  A Trump victory in November would be devastating for the environment, but even without their candidate at the helm, the Republicans in Congress will carry on their relentless campaign of environmental deregulation.  The presidential race is very important, but it is not the only game in town.

It’s not about personality

In this most preposterous of political seasons, we’ve gotten used to Donald Trump’s outbursts.  As he berates Muslims and Mexicans and talks down to African Americans, what we hear from his faithful and his handlers is an unending chorus of “he didn’t mean that.” It’s been the job of the Republican establishment to walk behind their chosen elephant and clean up his messes.  So when candidate Trump labels climate change as a “hoax,” as “mythical,” as “nonexistent” and a “con job,” we wait for the predictable response.  But it doesn’t come.  Trump means what he says about climate change, his followers applaud, and what the candidate blurts out with his habitual crudeness, the Republican platform endorses in measured language and with chilling specifics. 

  Back in the day when America’s great environmental legislation was passed—the days of the Wilderness Preservation Act, The Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act—the name of the game was bipartisanship.  But during the last 20 years, the Republicans have picked up their ball and gone home.  Everything that is done for the environment these days is unilateral and comes from the Oval Office.    With the gleeful support of a Republican Congress, a Trump presidency would put an end to environmental progress.

The first target of the Republican platform is the Environmental Protection Agency.  Republicans vow to reconfigure the agency as a bipartisan committee with no power to enforce environmental law.  Most environmental regulation would be left up to individual states, where Republican legislators and governors dominate.  Gutting the EPA is a prime goal, but the platform also promises to repeal or redefine landmark environmental statutes.  The Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act—both signed into law by President Nixon – top their hit list.  A Trump nominee replacing the late Justice Scalia or filling any new vacancy on the Supreme Court would guarantee years of anti-environmental decisions.

Though Republicans and Democrats agree on very little when it comes to the environment, they do agree on energy.  Energy production and regulation are at the heart of each party’s environmental platform, but they see these issues in entirely different ways.  Carrying on from the initiatives of the second Obama administration, and driven by the imperative to counter climate change, energy for Democrats means promoting non-polluting wind and solar, with lower priorities for natural gas, oil and coal.   The Democratic platform declares:

We believe America must be running entirely on clean energy by mid-century. We will take bold steps to slash carbon pollution and protect clean air at home, lead the fight against climate change around the world, ensure no Americans are left out or left behind as we accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy, and be responsible stewards of our natural resources and our public lands and waters.

The Republican platform promotes a multi-pronged energy strategy embracing “all forms of energy that are marketable in a free economy without subsidies, including coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear power, and hydropower.”  Geothermal, wind, and solar are conspicuously missing from their agenda.   And while multiple sources of energy make the Republican short list, the recurring drumbeat in the GOP platform is coal.  The platform accuses the Obama administration of a covert “war on coal.”  It asserts that the Democratic Party as a whole “does not understand that coal is an abundant, clean, affordable, reliable domestic energy source.”   Since coal-burning power plants produce a variety of atmospheric pollutants, the Republican platform needs some help to establish coal as a source of “clean” energy.  Their answer can only be described as a bit of administrative sleight of hand:  “We will forbid the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide.”

If the Democrats are to be accused of waging a war against coal, Republicans might with equal justice be charged with waging war against carbon dioxide limits both domestically and internationally.  The Republican platform rejects “any carbon tax,” and it “rejects the agendas of both the Kyoto Protocol (which the US never signed) and the Paris Agreement.”  The platform also takes aim at the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, labelling it “a political mechanism not an unbiased scientific institution.”   And finally, if there is to be any action to address the problems posed by atmospheric carbon, the platform blandly asserts that it should be undertaken not by government but by “the private sector,” though what would motivate the private sector to take on this burden is left unsaid.

Trump will probably make a dozen more outrageous threats and promises before the election in November, and the Republican leadership will explain them away.  But that won’t happen when the topic is climate change and the environment.  On those crucial issues, the gross outlines of Trump’s thinking and the official policy of the Republican Party coincide. 

If Trump is our next president, you can count on a Republican administration to halt the drive toward clean energy, hamstring the EPA, and reverse landmark protections that have been a source of environmental health and national pride for decades. 


On August 8, 2016, everyone on this planet begins to live beyond their means. 

Each year the earth provides a renewable fund of food, sunlight, rainwater and other life essentials.  According to the earth monitoring organization, Global Footprint, we will exhaust these renewables by August 8 this year.   From then through New Year’s Eve, we will have to rely entirely on natural resources left over from earth’s past:   the solar energy stored over thousands of years in coal, oil and natural gas; the rainwater collected decades ago underground.  

 To protect both renewable and non-renewable resources, we In the United States have long relied on a landmark collection of environmental laws and regulations.  As far reaching as they are, however, these laws have failed to bring us into balance with our resource base.  To really turn things around we need a new approach to environmental policy and legislation.  We need a constitutional amendment guaranteeing every American the right to a healthy environment.

 The US Constitution says nothing about nature or the environment and that silence has shaped American environmental policy from the beginning.  Because of it, lawmakers have had to be very ingenious.  With no explicit constitutional foundation to rely on, they have improvised a tangle of laws and regulations indirectly plugged into our fundamental law.  The resulting legislation is as complex as the plumbing and wiring in the hundred-year-old house our family once lived in: a hodge-podge of pipes and conduits with remote connections and mysterious outlets.  As the old saying goes, “Nothing works in an old house except the owners.”  Congress, the White House and the courts who took ownership of our environment in the pioneering legislation of the Nixon era stopped working together to keep it up and running in the 1990’s.  Since then partisanship, mounting litigation and neglect have taken a substantial, though seldom acknowledged, toll.

I am not a lawyer, and as environmental law stands, only specialists can comprehend, administer or challenge it.   The environment is everybody’s concern, and as Franklin Roosevelt famously said, “the Constitution is a layman’s document.”  Putting the environment into a constitutional amendment means putting the ball in the people’s court.  We the people live or die by the health of our environment.   We deserve a straight forward declaration of environmental rights and responsibilities with the power and authority a constitutional amendment commands.

 Is a constitutional amendment possible?  Internationally ninety-two nations have included the right to a healthy environment in their constitutions.  Six US states—Illinois, Pennsylvania, Montana, Massachusetts, Hawaii and Rhode Island—guarantee a healthy environment to their citizens.  So there is ample precedent, but do these environmental provisions work?  Do they make things better?  Researchers at Canada’s University of British Columbia have posed that question and their answer is a solid “yes.”  Their international study shows that a constitutional amendment makes environmental rights and responsibilities clearer to the general public.  It gathers the multiple strands of environmental legislation and places them on a single foundation with authority above that of ordinary statute law.  Their research also shows that the environmental impact of nations and states with such provisions in their constitutions is measurably less than that of nations without them.  From a legal point of view and from the point of view of environmental impact, constitutional amendments are effective. 

 There is one further major advantage that a constitutional amendment would confer:  it would not only protect the world we depend on today, but it would also guide and guard the environment our children and grandchildren will inhabit.  As things now stand, the environment we are leaving to our heirs will be far deadlier than the one passed down to us, and the people who stand to inherit it have no say in the matter.  A constitutional amendment speaks for the present generation, but it also speaks for generations to come.  Our current environmental laws are unable to do that.

 The US once led the world in environmental legislation, and though we tend to believe that is still the case, it is no longer true.  Leadership has passed to others.  If we are to regain our place as international environmental leader and begin to live within our means, we need a gut rehab in this old house.  We need a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to a healthy environment, and we need it now.   August 8 is just around the corner.

St. Benedict is the better choice as environmental champion

In his timely and trenchant encyclical, Pope Francis embraced positions on environmental degradation that many have labelled a Copernican revolution in the Church’s thinking.  Entitled Laudato Si’,  “Praised be thou,” the title phrase honors St. Francis of Assisi, and the saint serves as bothits inspiration and model for environmental responsibility.  The pope describes his namesake as an “attractive and compelling figure, [who] helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human.”

It is no surprise that the pope’s encyclical would highlight this popular Johnny Appleseed of a saint.  But if the pope’s aim were truly to upset the apple cart of conventional Catholic thinking on the natural world, he might have searched a little more deeply in the roster of potential sponsoring figures.  St. Francis has long been invoked by Catholics and non-Catholics alike for the love he expressed for the created earth, but as the pioneering ecologist, Rene Dubos pointed out many years ago, St. Francis has his limitations:

Francis of Assisi’s loving and contemplative reverence in the face of nature survives today in the awareness of man’s kinship to all other living things and in the conservation movement.  But reverence is not enough, because man has never been a passive witness of nature.  

Admittedly, the search for figures in Christian history with a more active interpretation of the link between the human and biological communities is challenging.  Jesus, of course, would be the most authoritative choice, but his portrayal throughout the New Testament, like the portrayal of God Himself in the Hebrew Bible, is of a being who transcends nature.  Unlike the deities of other East Asian communities, whose dwelling places and characters were rooted in local landscape, the Jewish and Christian ideal of godhead defied natural connection and drew on nature as a storehouse of metaphors rather than a repertory of divine attributes.

The early Church fathers, St. Augustine primary among them, were taken with the notion that the created world was an artifact of the Divine hand and mind.  Because God had created it, the earth and all its creatures were signs of his essential character.  The purpose of studying nature was not to discover its self-sufficient principles; nature was not an end in itself.  Nature was best understood as a cipher encoded in beings instead of words.  It was a tangible book, parallel to Scripture, in which God revealed aspects of his being and purpose.  And while allegories of the pelican, the goldfinch, or the dogwood filled the encyclopedic literature of late antiquity and the Middle Ages and inspired the faithful—St. Francis among them—theyhad no impact on active Christian engagement with the environment. 

The only saint who concerned himself directly with the natural world and with the responsibility of humans to work within its constraints and to enhance its potential was St. Benedict, from whom the pope emeritus took his name and inspiration.  While St. Francis undoubtedly delighted in the symbolic and sacred character of the natural world and both recognized and extolled human kinship with it, he had no pragmatic concern for the earth itself.  The great movement of renewal that he spawned, the Franciscan Brotherhood and its offshoots, reinvigorated the church and bolstered the spirituality of thousands of neglected communities.  Francis did nothing to challenge or guide human actions as they affected the earth itself.

Benedict, on the other hand, had a profound, direct and studied interest in the responsible management of the earth and its resources.  The history of pre-Benedictine monasticism offers up a curious roster of athletic and imaginative aesthetics who tested the limits of self-abnegation in hostile environments.  Some succeeded in subduing the temptations that St. Anthony so famously battled, while others failed with scandalous effect.  Looking at this uncertain and marginally productive spiritual environment, St. Benedict came up with two key innovations.  He believed his monks should live together in communities where they could support and encourage each other along their self-chosen spiritual paths.  St. Benedict also recognized the enormous threat that leisure had posed to lone ascetics.  There could of course never be enough prayer, but setting aside unlimited time for prayer and meditation, as earlier monks had done, more often than not yielded idleness and self-indulgence rather than increased spirituality.  To combat idleness, Benedict made a very radical proposal for his era.  Monks in his brotherhood should work for a portion of the day.  That work, in the early days of the order, was in the gardens and the fields of the monastery.

 Benedictine monks were men of high social status to whom physical labor was alien and abhorrent, yet the founder decreed that these men should work with their hands and asserted that such work would prove both physically and spiritually beneficial for them.  St. Francis, as interpreted by the pope’s encyclical, links the suffering earth with the suffering poor as worthy objects of human compassion.  St. Benedict opens the way for considering the earth and its cultivation as an arena of meaningful and responsible human activity.

Had Pope Francis chosen to move beyond shopworn veneration for the idealist of Assisi, he might have grounded his appeal for a reformed environmental consciousness in richer intellectual and spiritual soil.  If there is to be a revolution in ecological attitudes, it will have to come from those who, like St. Benedict, can intelligently guide us in a constructive physical engagement with the earth as we now find it.  We do not live by bread alone, true, but we are dependent on the air, water, food, and warmth that earth provides.  Destroying the earth is far more than a mere spiritual crime; healing the earth calls for something more tangible than a change of heart.  Within the canon of Christian saints, St. Benedict guides us to fruitful physical partnership with the earth.As Dubos said many years ago, “Reverence is not enough.”


Wheat People Vs. Rice People?

In a recent op-ed piece in the Times (Dec.  4, p. A29 “Wheat People vs. Rice People) T. M. Luhrman made a surprising connection between individualism East and West and the agricultural pasts of both regions. Westerners by multiple measures are more prone to see themselves as isolated from the group, well Easterners see themselves as part of some larger community.  Western individualism, Luhrman argues, has been shaped by wheat cultivation, while Easterners have been shaped by the very different culture of rice.  Since a group effort is required to bring rice—a notoriously demanding crop—to maturity, the Eastern emphasis on community has been fostered if not created by the traditions of its signature agricultural product.  This is an intriguing argument, acknowledging as it does a link between the demands of agricultural labor and long term effects on individual personality and group psychology.  It asserts that practices originating in two of the great Neolithic revolutions that the world has experienced underlie habits of thought and action in the contemporary world. 

In my own recent work on the Mediterranean agricultural revolution and its environmental implications, I have examined some of the same issues.  I assess the consequences of the long ago invention of agriculture East and West not only in the sphere of personality development but for cultural development in the broadest sense.  I differ with Prof. Luhrman in the particulars of Western cultivation.  While ‘our daily bread’ may be one of the most significant cliché’s of the Western diet, wheat has not been the primary agricultural product for the majority of Western civilizations during any period from its first domestication ten millennia ago up to and including today.  Nor is wheat cultivation in the many places and eras where it has been carried out as individualistic as he suggests. 

The version of the Neolithic agricultural revolution that many of us learned about in school was all about cereal grains.  We were taught that the great civilizations of the Fertile Crescent invented agriculture, irrigation and social organization at one and the same time.  More recent research has revealed a different story.  Big civilizations in Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Egypt did indeed produce great amounts of wheat, but they also grew other crops, while they fished, hunted and foraged for wild foods.  The Romans were probably the greatest wheat producers of the ancient world.  Their harvests from Southern Italy, Sicily and especially Egypt fed peoples throughout the Mediterranean region.  The Lord’s Prayer, which includes the reference to ‘our daily bread’ was first spoken in a time and place where Roman agriculture was prevalent. 

As far as we can tell from archaeology and surviving accounts of ancient cultivation, the production of any large scale crop was a communal rather than an individual effort.  The fields of Mesopotamia were vast, too large for a single farmer or farm family to own and certainly beyond their capacity to cultivate.  The large fields surrounding urban centers were owned by elites and cultivated by gangs of landless workers.  The work was not only communal but regimented.  Potters in the city made disposable clay sickle blades by the thousands which were sharp when new and discarded when they lost their edge.  The same potters made standardized jars that measured and held a workers daily ration of food.  Farm carts and teams of oxen—all enormously costly and far beyond the means of any working family—brought in the harvest.  Large scale grain farming in the Roman Empire was carried out on estates owned by wealthy entrepreneurs where all the farm work was done by slaves.  None of the extensive, grain cultivating Mediterranean societies depended in any significant measure on the work of independent cultivators of wheat or of any other agricultural commodity.  Field work within their domains was cooperative and communal.

With the decline of the Roman Empire, mixed agriculture replaced wheat production.  The large flatland holdings of the Roman slave masters were abandoned and returned to marsh or seasonal pasture.  Farmers moved inland where they raised the traditional suite of Mediterranean crops, grain, olives, figs and grapes; they pastured sheep, goats and pigs on village common lands; they foraged for wild mushrooms, greens and berries and hunted small game in woodlands near their homes.  They had a mixed diet and a mixed economy to sustain it.  These farmers lived primarily in villages, not on isolated holdings, and in many cases farmed strips of land that were assigned and reassigned by village committees.  Their lives were every bit as communal as those of Eastern farmers.

It was not until the eighteenth century that widespread wheat cultivation was reintroduced in Europe by political elites who felt that reviving the signature cultivar of the Roman Empire was a progressive thing to do.  They argued against the mixed cultivation that had sustained their populations for millennia and insisted that farming based on multiple crops in diverse terrains with an admixture of animal raising was a sign of peasant backwardness.  We would certainly judge the situation differently today.  Large scale mono-culture of wheat, which Prof. Luhrman takes to be representative of the West and the foundation of its individualism really took off in the modern world because of an accident of geography.  Both Russia and North America, where vast and continuous plains were discovered and exploited during the migrations of the nineteenth century, proved incredibly productive land for wheat cultivation.

 The black soils of the Ukraine became the breadbasket of Russia.  When the John Deere plow, the McCormick reaper and the steam tractor were invented, it finally became possible for a small American farm to cultivate and harvest multiple acres of wheat.  Before the widespread availability of these tools in the decades after the American Civil War, even the Great Plains were home to gangs of itinerant workmen, plowboys and their giant teams of horses in early spring; gangs of reapers and threshers moving from farm to farm in harvest time.

So, yes, agriculture invented East, West and South in various Neolithic revolutions did indeed shape cultures fundamentally and profoundly, and the results of those founding events are still felt today; but given the actual history of wheat cultivation in the Mediterranean and its worldwide offshoots, we cannot assert that individualism was one of its consequences.  Individualism as a norm of working the land is evident in only a sliver of wheat’s long history.  Like the Eastern tradition, the Western agricultural tradition, if it is fully understood, provides ample and fertile ground for the communal cooperation that we so urgently need today.