My father was a gentle stockman, and he cared for people the same. He taught us how to hunt up and how to use presence and eye when mustering, and how not to push cattle too hard. He had a way with dogs, and some would jump up on to a strainer post on quiet command. He loved stories, company, music, laughter, and especially the land, continually pointing out things he was observing.
And he would be distressed by people thinking that some documented examples of cruelty toward dairy ‘industry’ bobby calves was how farming in general thought and operated. Most family-run farms do not make a practice of cruelty and undignified death.
But there are operations where such things happen. And the first question to ask is why; identify that deeper cause, and deal with that.
That deeper roots to this debacle are the changing values underpinning how we look at land, community, people, animals and land use. That itself is a reflection of how we think of an economy as divorced from social and environmental functions. There are no life-supporting environmental and social functions, just things which The Market allocates in a machine.
And it is the systems that proclaim and reinforce the soulless and mechanical view: produce more, cheaper, never mind downstream, people are cogs expected to be obedient and grateful, animals aren’t even that.
And so footage of industrial dairy is shown around the world, and the world headlines suggest that this is the nature of farming in New Zealand. If I was a farmer, I would be taking on these industrial minds, because
they have just slipped us lower again on the perceived quality rung, with a commensurate drop in our ability to demand a better price for the ‘qualities’ we offer. The same applies for cruelty toward the environment. It is good business to those that are interested in the short-term ‘deal’, the temporary savings. It is bad business to anyone that cares about the future generations of economically viable farming.
This Government, the Ministry of Primary ‘Industries’, and various local governments, hell bent on the production of more cheap dross through finance-heavy intensification projects, all lack any understanding of this key point. It is another tragic failing in policy direction, exacerbated by neo-liberal mechanical ideology.
Like the health and safety issues highlighted by Pike River mine disaster, these are moral concerns, not just technical and regulatory concerns. It highlights a way of thinking toward people and profit as much as lax regulation and monitoring. Our response ought to focus more on the moral level. The alternative is a straightjacket of compliance made necessary because farmers “cannot be trusted.”
Putting more regulatory layers on each operation may technically bind the corporate unethical industrial thinker – though they have the resources to manipulate the intent of any new law – but they can make the life of the smaller and ethical operator almost unmanageable.
In trying to contain the monster, we may enslave our neighbour. Our target ought to be to remove the beast. And that monster is the pervasive industrial corporate thinking and their narrow and short-term money lens, which makes us less, not more, wealthy in the long-term.
Within the industrial root of cruelty, money is the unethical measure; life is reduced to a machine made up of ‘resources’ and things; some of them waste to be discarded without compassion. Cruelty and dignity of death may not be even considered; and if they are, it is likely to be through the myopic lens where caring costs extra.
Annie Proulx writes about the growing predominance of the industrial view in That Old Ace in the Hole about hog battery factories in the Texas Panhandle. The main character is lambasted by his corporate boss for referring to animals as hogs, “They are not hogs, they are pork units.”
And from this, the consequences arise. The industrial mind is not connected to community or place, it resides far away and counts its money, plays with its spreadsheets heavily discounting the future, understands no broader way to see, certainly not feel, and oils the machine with political lobbying, PR and advertising.
That myopic mind does not care, it does not see, and it is not wise.
Communities, land, staff, people – all become ‘things’, and this reduction of meaning – as Terry Pratchett wrote – “is where evil begins.” We lose our own humanity when we act with cruelty toward land, animals and communities. We also lose our combined social, environmental and, yes,
economic Common Wealth. We exploit and degrade existing wealth; a short-term extractive economy run by deal makers, not a long-term creative one run by community-based teams. New Zealand’s love affair with industrial commoditisation is a race to a Third World bottom, digging ever deeper.
The current government cannot apparently think in any other level than this. It creates mega-departments, and renames them ‘Primary Industries’, and ‘Business, Innovation & Enterprise’. Our public service is being rebuilt before our eyes on the narrow corporate model.
David Orr wrote that this industrial age,“… spawned gargantuan organisations with simple goals, roughly analogous to the body/brain ratio of the dinosaur … lack[ing] the ability to think much beyond business equivalents of ingestion and procreation. The monomania drove out thought of the morrow, warped lives, disfigured much of the world, and dominated the intellectual landscapes.”
Cruelty to people, to land, and to animals is one of the warped disfigurements of which Orr writes.
Our farms are not part of an ‘industry’, they are land and community. Rivers runs through them; they gift us life and recreation; our communities, plants and animals live within them; they have a history that tells a story with people as characters; and a deeper meaning than the factory thinkers will ever understand. Nor will they understand from within their pea-brain dinosaur models that harming this system and the stories attached will eventually harm themselves, or that there is real potential in raising all values by rejecting industrial commodities.
We will continue to hear stories of the abuse of land, community and animals until we change the roots. For that to happen, family farmers have to stand up against this rising tide of the commoditisation of life and land, and to all the associated advocacy of GMOs, intensification, pollution, and ever more commodities.
There is another path: recognise the land, place and community as a place with the potential to create value, and focus on marketing our quality story. Get off the blandness and sameness of cheap volume where all life’s meanings are diminished, degrading us all.
Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.
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 Orr, D. 2002. The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture and Human Intention. OUP, NY p69-70
An edited version of this article appeared in Hawke’s Bay Today 3rd December 2015