Does Farming need to Compromise the Environment? Compromise? Hell!

My apologies to Jane Austen, but some have been claiming recently that it is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a farm must compromise the environment.  One newspaper commentator stated it thus: “..where our (New Zealand) reputation as an agricultural engine and our clean green image are values that certain sections of the community hold dear.  Values that, more often than not, are at odds with each other.[1]  Nonsense.  But oft-repeated nonsense, usually by those who find comfort in clichés. The commentator is not alone, and it is comforting if you say what other people have already said.  Oh, there’s another one, guaranteed to make my hair stand on end: “you can’t be green if you’re in the red.”

For Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the theme was marry, or be poor.  For much of the thinking within the primary ‘industry’ (and calling a complex social-environmental-economic system an ‘industry’ is part of the whole damn mess) is to either mine the natural capital, or be poor.  Then let’s add the myth of producing more, whatever the effect on profit, risk, food quality, or environment, because we’re locked into a colonial mindset of feeding a Mother country (who cut the apron strings a long time ago).

We live by myths.  The myth that a farmer must either compromise the environment or face economic ruin has three suspects.  Some wilfully act on it and don’t care if it’s true or not because they won’t be the individuals who suffer; many are at a point where they have no alternative because of the state they are in, and some believe it.  The supreme irony is that if they either believe it, or wilfully exploit, then they will degrade the capacity of the system to the point where there is only one end game – accelerated exploitation and collapse.  Systems do that.  It’s what the economists and engineers have never understood.  Life is not a machine.  It is far more similar to a long fast exhausting dance on a slippery floor, or a murmuration of starlings creating patterns in the sky that no one can predict.  The trick is to know when we are reaching the point when the dance has to change to keep our feet.

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Meanwhile, back in non-metaphor land, a properly functioning environment is the farmers’ friend.  It can reduce costs, increase productivity (output per input), increase gross production, decrease the need for costly energy inputs, increase carbon, increase resilience to risks such as drought, flood and pests, increase stock health, provide the story for a product to have price-retaining market position, and increase profit.  Whew!  It can also make life worthwhile for both the farmer and downstream communities.  Lots of ‘ands’, not many ‘ors’.

Common to the examples of excellence is a way of looking at land patterns, which land is suited to what land cover, how the land covers can each support the other, soil and water functions, and rationalising energy inputs.

Why replace all that for a simplified system ever more drug-dependent on energy inputs, happily cheap for the moment, with poorly positioned commodities, a stream polluted with the dollar bills of your own precious soil and nutrients, and an unpleasant future?  Because the suppliers, agronomists, politicians, and processors encourage farmers to do so?  You compromise the environment and you end up compromising the economy, and the community.  They are integral to each other.  I wonder if it’s not a bit Calvinist.  Like saying you can’t have fun and make a decent living (make love or profit, but not both).

Though environmental compromise is neither necessary nor desirable, and yet is still a spoken belief, then it indicates a pattern of thinking that will soon get us to that terminal state, whether we like or not.  If you believe in compromise, then that is all you will look for, all you will see, and all you will get.  Then the “you can’t be green” cliché become true, because you have made it so, not because it need be so.

And then the situation gets worse and you’ll look for some more compromise.  That’s called a vicious circle, a race to the bottom.  It has to be broken.  But first it has to be broken in people’s heads.

It follows from the commentator’s oh so familiar statement above that we have little hope in creating wider landscapes that involve an ‘and’; environment ‘and’ economy ‘and’ community, all mutually supporting.  There is only room for an ‘or’, not dissimilar to the preservationists on the other side of the industrial perspective who so often argued that we can have either forests or furniture but apparently not both.  They have in the past partied up to the industrialists to debate where to place the boundary fence between industry and environment, being sure to marginalise all humanity except themselves in the process.

We must apparently look to the factory model of primary ‘industry’, and marvel at every-larger factories, and machines, and energy inputs, and farm size.  Industrial Mordor, here we come.  Our future.  Our Nirvana.  A world dis-integrated, made safe for combine harvesters, and over the fence a place where the affluent from Karori can commune with nature; another perspective not even Tolkien envisaged – The Wilderness, sans elves, unless you’re one who’s just visiting.  Between these extremes there is no room for the Shire. And the environmental functionality of the wider landscape is – well – dys (functional).  Which begs the question about the future of humanity.

This dystopia (another dys) and its either-or assumptions are worth critically examining.  There are these three situations where people either wilfully, or through necessity, or through belief, compromise the environment.  Each is a different case.

The Wilful Exploiter

The wilful compromisers are the easiest to identify.  They are the real black-hat baddies; the benighted merchant bankers of the natural world.

If you think only about short-term personal wealth creation and choose to make a Mordor in someone else’s backyard while living in the Tuscany of your choice, then you can do so.  Within various natural systems, especially those that take many years to develop – forests, soils, fisheries – we can make a lot more money in the short-term by liquidating natural capital.  We can log a forest to extinction before reinvesting in, say, drift-netting a fishery to death, and then move on to mining the capacity of our rural landscapes to make them more resembling of the bony, dry hills of Greece, gasping for hopefully forever-cheap artificial inputs (“We need more irrigation dams!!  We need perpetual cheap oil!!!  Frack more, it’s our only hope!!”) to make up for what they used to provide for free.  Sounds like international finance, with dirt.

There are probably people who would defend these actions; the Tea Party, the ghost of Milton Friedman, our own usual corporate and finance apologists, the politicians who attract the most multi-national corporate support.  I don’t know to what audience they are directing their excuses, but it is not to us.  If we have any interests in making a successful enterprise to pass on to later generations; a successful local community; a successful country; then one-off short-term ‘wealth’ creation by liquidation of natural capital and taking it elsewhere, lacks a certain perspective.  More GDP though.  Environmental destruction, like an earthquake, is good for GDP.

History has all sorts of lessens that demonstrate how such short-term thinking and personal greed lead to an eventual system collapse.  Some obviously think it fine if that’s the risk.  They may either live in the now while the problems lie in the future, or they may live elsewhere.  Not my problem.  Divorced from the consequences.  The great (retch) ‘philosopher’ Rand said act like a reptilian vampire and the world will be a better place.  The ‘greed is good’ brigade demonstrate often enough that, while the ‘market’ (I put inverted commas around it to emphasise that it’s an abstraction, not a god – as in “Our Lord Market, hallowed be thy name”) may work well with most short-term localised feedbacks (when the power of corporates and aristocrats is substituted by the power of meaningful local democracy – oh, the neo-liberal economists forget that part), the ‘market’ (“all [DON’T] hail”) can be appalling where time and space has a bit of scale attached.

The market won’t do it alone.  That is why we need to judge heavily those that wilfully exploit land or people.  Ethics matter.  I once had an interesting discussion with an economist of a particular neo-liberal persuasion when I explained that the ‘rational’ financial choice is NOT to manage a long-cycling system sustainably.  It was to mine a forest then march off to legally hoodwink another unsuspecting chief in the Solomons.  “Your forest is not that valuable.  Tell you what, I’ll take the mess off your hands for you.  And I’ll throw in a jetty and some mud tracks that will turn into a liability in a few years time.  You want a couple of four-wheel drives?  Ok, done.  You drive a hard bargain.  Have a beer.”

Repeat until stinking rich, and hopefully happy.  The same applies to social systems.  Exploitation works.  At least for some decades, until the Malthusian press takes things to the point of revolution and people start dreaming of Madame la Guillotine.  The wheel of fortune is real.  If you don’t balance ego and power with some ethical concern for others, then you risk a major fall.  But who needs such wisdom in the age of financial and ego extremes.  And if the wheel falls on someone else ….. then it’s someone else’s problem??


Sustainability for long-running natural systems is underpinned by an ethic.  For ethics, family farms are best because the people live in the land, have children, and generally care a little more about the community and the next generations.  They have at least the basis of the necessary perspective.  Corporate agriculture and Alpha male megalomaniacs do not. Combine that with an unhealthy obsession with power, and the only long-term solution is to recognise their sociopathy and ecopathy (I just made that word up) and control their power.  If we had to recognise the ultimate cause of potential social, environmental and economic collapse, then this Ayn Rand style despotic reptilian egoism is a prime suspect.  Am I being too harsh?  Is greed and exploitation good?

The Desperate Compromiser

Even in the short-term the market can create the problem where the hammer of price reduction comes up against the anvil of rising costs, and people have nowhere else to go.  This is the second case for environmental harm. They must degrade their natural capital, or externalise their costs, just to survive.

The Dust Bowl conditions in the US mid and south west in the 1930s is perhaps the most famous example.  There are many more.  Faced with the hammer of declining prices for wheat and the anvil of an interest bill from the bank, farmers actually increased production because they needed the revenue.  Most economists would expect the reverse; a drop in production because of lower prices.  If farmers had options other than wheat, that may have happened.  But they had no options, so sowed more wheat on already tired land, and broke in more short-grass prairie, desperate to pay the bills.  The price dropped again from yet more over-supply.  President Herbert Hoover praised their enterprise in tough times, demonstrating the usual political ignorance regarding land.  They broke in more prairie, and then more.  If someone charged them with adversely affecting their environment, they would argue necessity, quite correctly.

They continued to exploit the land’s natural capital.  Continuous wheat farming is no friend of the soil.  It reached a point where the soil had no more resilience left, and was then ripe for a disaster: a rise in interest rates; another lowering of price; a devastating flood; a drought.

They got the drought.  The camel broke its back.  A classic socio-ecological system collapse. Pretty Boy Floyd robbed banks and burned mortgage documents and became a local hero.  Steinbeck wrote a great book.  Dennis Glover’s poem The Magpie, with all the quardle oodling, presents the same story in a different (NZ) setting, though without Pretty Boy Floyd.  The end is the same.  The banks own the land, and only the crows or magpies remain.

When something is in this state, a major rethink is required.  The land may not suit the vegetation cover chosen.  Practices need to be reconsidered.  Poor choice of land cover to site is also the case within farms, erodible steep faces and dissected gullies being the obvious ones.  New Zealand – socially at least – is a young country, still with a colonial mind-set.  We have yet to learn about the integrated land use patterns that are evident around the older world.  In many regions, if you plant trees you remain a bit suspect.  We are bombarded by monomaniac ‘experts’ wanting a ‘tidy’ 1000 acres of one thing.  Pattern?  Heaven forbid!

The Believing Compromiser

The third case is where people degrade the environment because they believe and are continually told that that is how it has to be.  This is a crisis of culture, a point well made by Wendell Berry in his classic The Unsettling of America.


Compromise is seen as necessary.  That’s the myth. That’s the way it is.  It is often accompanied with statements about the need to feed the world, or how gross production of commodity is the measure of success.  Think of all the undifferentiated commodities we can sell to the world for an ever declining price, and God damn the greenies for trying to put us out of business.

Never mind profits, resilience to risks, lifestyle, or community.  Never mind the potential of land to provide a range of products and services and high value local processing chains.  A whole research, policy, education, supply, media and processing industry has a vested interest in this myth.  They perpetuate the commodity trap, and seek solutions within the same thinking that created the problem.  We need a techno-fix.  More GE.  Another chemical.

The myth discounts all the examples demonstrated by Farm Environment Award contestants, farm foresters, the experience of the Raglan catchment project, niche marketers, and many others that look at their land differently and create highly profitable lower-cost farms, with lower energy inputs, lower risks, greater resilience, and many multiplying benefits to the local community.

Where we have declining natural capital in New Zealand, it is the desperate and the believing compromisers that predominate.  But we have a few wilful exploiters as well.  It is mostly a crisis of culture, whether because we have got ourselves into a poorly positioned commodity trap, or because the received wisdom is that compromise is necessary.  Stating otherwise is risky.  You may be called a hippy.

Where environmental damage is occurring it needs to be acknowledged, and the drivers understood.  The drivers are mainly social.  So are the solutions.  Openness to new ideas would be a start, as would a few broader strategic debates.

When people say you can’t be green if you’re in the red, then there is no room for seeing, let alone examining, far less realising, the potential the environment can provide for us.  We perpetuate a myth that promises nothing except a bleak future, because it positions humanity as somehow outside the environment, instead of within it.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley has been called a hippy as well as a ‘make love not profit’ flower child.  He wonders why people think you need to make the choice.

[1] Michael Forbes (Dom Post 17 Sept 2011 A15)

This entry was posted in Land Use, Resilience Thinking, Thought Pieces. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Does Farming need to Compromise the Environment? Compromise? Hell!

  1. Paul Marshall says:

    Is that you on the Green Party list??? Paul


    • cjkperley says:

      There is only one me Paul. How’s it?

      • Bulaman says:

        Raging against the decline in our forest estate and our industry.
        We over cut our (non declining yield) forest last year by about 1.4 million cubic metres, we have removed our plantation forest at a greater rate (in percentage terms) than the Amazon. We spend $260 million plus on climate change and the ETS all for nought. We could plant about 90,000 hectares per annum for that money and stabilise/rehab a lot of marginal land along with providing a new forest for the future.

      • cjkperley says:

        No argument here Paul. The structure of the ‘industry’ and the continued attempts to look for market (ETS) solutions instead of more socially-active solutions leaves me cold. But the Emperor – while naked – has lots of people around him saying how swish he looks.

  2. Barrie Ridler says:

    Liked this as per usual Chris.

    Sometimes your knowledge of books and great thinkers leaves me floundering but this one I relate to.

    Fed farmers and Irrigation NZ seem able to blackmail this Govt. with statements that are (as you note) totally flawed yet few do any deeper thinking than the images that pop up in the vacuous mind of today.

    “Milk, Money, Muck and Metrics: Inefficient resource allocation by NZ dairy farmers.” was the title of a paper to NZARES that pointed out some of the points you make.

    It had little or no impact when first presented in 2010. Just as my submissions against the blind “productionist” arguments supporting the RWSS were also ignored. (Like “ecopathy” for you, I made the productionist word up too. Describes the “sharemilker” mindset of more cows = more production = more money and = more chance to buy my own farm(s). A condition that still prevails on Fonterra Board and Council, Dairy Section Fed farmers and most of dairy “INDUSTRY”……. )

    Unfortunately the general population sees the rosy or gloomy picture that business/vested interest wishes to paint depending on what they are selling today.

    Although Blogs make some headway against the tide, the storm force winds that money can create mean that only losing a little ground sometimes seems like a victory. But when you know you are inevitably heading down a path to environmental death, it never feels like victory.


    Barrie Ridler

    • cjkperley says:

      Agreed Barrie. The core problem may well be the power elites that drive our financial system, at the expense of our future. The sad thing is they are either blind to the implications, or don’t care. I don’t know what’s less forgivable.

    • cjkperley says:

      Would love a copy of that paper Barrie! Do you happen to have a pdf?

  3. Greg Hart says:

    Good article Chris

    Definitely on the same page with you!! Our debt based money system does create challenges though and until the mountain of debt is removed from our global economy it isn’t going to get any easier!

    Best wishes

    Greg 298 Mangarara Rd, R D 2, Otane, 4277 NZ 06-8584343

  4. Justin Drinnan says:

    G’day Chris, great post. It’s funny you should bring up the green, red cliche because in a ChCh Press opinion piece today about clean water, the Nrth Canty Fed farmers president Lynda Murchison used the phrase it’s hard to be green if you are in the red. At this stage I don’t share her optimistic opinion that water quality is all uphill from here and only a matter of time till its put right. Of course, I would dearly love to be proved wrong on this. Keep on writing please.

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