Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of cri­sis.

Aengus Anderson: During some of these moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inher­it­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future gen­er­a­tions.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it hap­pen­ing?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing these sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monop­oly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.


Micah Saul: Greetings from New Orleans.

Aengus Anderson: That’s a good thing to hear. I’m jeal­ous. Somehow Hartford, Connecticut doesn’t have quite the same sexy ring to it.

Saul: Yeah. Yeah. New Orleans is pret­ty awe­some. I’m kin­da hung over. Still. But, rolling out today, and got maybe five more before I’ll hit New York, and I will see you there.

Anderson: And then the real insan­i­ty will com­mence. But before the insan­i­ty, we have a con­ver­sa­tion with Patrick Crouch of the Earthworks Organic Farm in Detroit. It’s a cool con­nec­tion also com­ing right out of Jenny’s con­ver­sa­tion into this one. Two Detroit con­ver­sa­tions, two very prag­mat­ic con­ver­sa­tions engaged in the city respond­ing to things very imme­di­ate­ly.

Saul: Any big themes we should men­tion before turn­ing our lis­ten­ers over to Patrick?

Anderson: Ah. yes. This was record­ed in the gar­den, on the side of the road, in Detroit, Michigan. So you’ll hear cars com­ing by, and you’ll hear the breeze, and you’ll hear the birds. So with that, here’s Patrick Crouch.


Patrick Crouch: Well, Earthworks is a an urban farm that’s been around for the last fif­teen years, and we’re the only cer­ti­fied organ­ic farm in the city. I think the grow­ing of food is part of the work that we do, but hon­est­ly the grow­ing of people…we like to think about regen­er­a­tive agri­cul­ture, of how agri­cul­ture can heal lands, and heal peo­ple, and heal com­mu­ni­ties. And so I think a lot of our work is cen­tered around cre­at­ing spaces where folks can recon­nect with each oth­er and the land and their com­mu­ni­ty.

So, to that end we have two and a half acres of land that we’re grow­ing food on, most­ly for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen that we’re a pro­gram of. And we host vol­un­teer days four days a week so that folks can come out and farm with us and learn how to farm and learn how to gar­den. A lot of the peo­ple that have come and vol­un­teered with us have gone on to start their own projects. That’s a major moti­va­tor for them. In addi­tion, we host twelve interns a year that we’re train­ing. We’re real­ly inter­est­ed in how to cre­ate new lead­er­ship around urban food sys­tems. We also do youth nutri­tion edu­ca­tion, and youth lead­er­ship devel­op­ment.

Aengus Anderson: And so, you men­tioned that you’re part of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. Who are you guys serv­ing?

Crouch: We’re here on the near East side, and most the peo­ple that we serve are com­ing from this com­mu­ni­ty. A lot of peo­ple walk­ing, a lot of peo­ple on bikes. We serve who­ev­er walks in the door. We don’t have any sort of require­ments around show­ing you know, that you have ID, or that you are enti­tled. The belief is that if you need a meal you’re wel­come to it. 

Anderson: So all of the pro­duce you are grow­ing, is that going straight to the soup kitchen? Or do you deliv­er it else­where, sell it, or…?

Crouch: Most of the food we grow goes straight to the soup kitchen. We feel like that’s a way to ensure that every­one is hav­ing high-quality food. We don’t think that just because you’re com­ing to a soup kitchen to get a meal means that the qual­i­ty the food should be sub­stan­dard. In fact, con­sid­er­ing that a lot of the peo­ple are deal­ing with sit­u­a­tions where they’re under­housed, they’re deal­ing with addic­tion, or men­tal health issues, or just any num­ber of extreme­ly stress­ful fac­tors in their lives, that it’s prob­a­bly even more impor­tant they have high-quality food. 

So, a good por­tion goes into the soup kitchen itself. We also do a mar­ket stand so that peo­ple in the neigh­bor­hood can come and get what they want. And we do sell some to some local cater­ers and restau­rants, to be able to make a lit­tle bit of mon­ey to help sup­port our work. We’re not 100% self-supportive, but the actu­al cost of the farm itself in terms of the seeds and the gaso­line and tools and all that sort of thing, is cov­ered by the amount of mon­ey we make from sales.

Anderson: Okay. So, you men­tioned both food sys­tems and also com­mu­ni­ty. Growing veg­eta­bles, grow­ing peo­ple. Let’s start with the food first, and then talk about the com­mu­ni­ty aspect, which I’m also real­ly inter­est­ed in. Why urban farm­ing?

Crouch: Part of it is that it’s such a direct action. It cre­ates an imme­di­ate rela­tion­ship. The ten­den­cy has been late­ly to focus on the eco­nom­ic pos­si­bil­i­ty of it, and I think that’s pret­ty low on our pri­or­i­ty list. In fact, we even ques­tion whether or not, should our basic needs be part of an eco­nom­ic sys­tem.

Anderson: That’s actu­al­ly a huge idea. One of the nice things about this project is we can sort of go down the rab­bit hole. Can we fol­low that a lit­tle more?

Crouch: Well, I think when you think about what we all need to sur­vive, if I were to start talk­ing about pri­va­tiz­ing air and sell­ing it as a com­mod­i­ty, peo­ple would freak out. And even on the East Coast here, peo­ple would freak out if I said, Well, you can’t har­vest rain­wa­ter. It’s not yours. It’s owned by the munic­i­pal­i­ty that it falls upon.” But out West that’s actu­al­ly very much the case, that you can’t even col­lect your own rain­wa­ter because it’s… Rain is not some­thing that you have the right to col­lect. Which is real­ly a strange thing, to think that you can’t take what is giv­en to you by the skies, that is dropped into your yard.

You know, I think to my ances­tors, if I were to say to them, You can’t walk in that for­est and eat the food in there.” 

Like, What do you what you mean I can’t eat that food?” 

Well it’s owned by some­one.”

They’d be like, Why are you… No one can own the land. No one can own the food on the land.”

And so I think that espe­cial­ly when we start talk­ing about air and we say that, peo­ple are like, That’s out­ra­geous.” But when we say food is just as much a basic need, too… I mean, it’ll take you a lit­tle longer to die from it, but you have to have it. And so when food is con­trolled by oth­ers, then that means in some ways they con­trol you. They have pow­er over you. And so in try­ing to cre­ate a world in which peo­ple have the great­est amount of agency, they need to have con­trol over their food and how it’s grown. And I’m not sug­gest­ing that no one should be able to make their liveli­hood from grow­ing food. I do think that’s…you know, you should have a right to your liveli­hood. But it’s the same as as hav­ing it be as it is now where we have eco­nom­ic spec­u­la­tors that are cash­ing in on grain futures, and com­plete­ly con­trol­ling the way that the world’s food econ­o­my works, where we’re tak­ing grain and turn­ing it into ethanol because we have a fed­er­al man­date that says we have to do that.

Anderson: So tell me more about the why of urban farm­ing. I’m curi­ous about, is this a scal­able idea? Is this a fun­da­men­tal change from what we’re doing, or is this just one dis­crete lit­tle vision that’s help­ing a soup kitchen in Detroit?

Crouch: I think one of the things to think about is how agri­cul­ture devel­oped. There’s this kind of idea that agri­cul­ture hap­pens out­side of cities. Cities are just these places of com­merce and hous­ing of peo­ple. And if you, at least from Jane Jacobs, who’s a famous urban plan­ner, one of her ideas is that cities are where agri­cul­ture start­ed. And we tend to think of the way that it worked is, peo­ple a domes­ti­cat­ed cat­tle and domes­ti­cat­ed seeds and then start­ed putting down their roots, lit­er­al­ly, and then formed city cen­ters around that.

But when you start think­ing about it, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Because in order to domes­ti­cate seeds and to domes­ti­cate cat­tle, you have to actu­al­ly stay in one place, first. You don’t keep just being a nomad. So why do you stay in one place? She claims that it’s trade loca­tions. And so they were spend­ing more time in one loca­tion. And they were spend­ing more time col­lect­ing the same seeds, and over time expelling them in their waste. And ulti­mate­ly city cen­ters where where agri­cul­ture formed. And I think that’s an impor­tant thing for us to think about. A rela­tion­ship with your food in the city is nor­mal. And I think what’s the stranger thing is that in the American or European mod­el of city is that it’s divorced from it. But even with­in European cities, even with­in American cities… You know, Brooklyn and Queens used to be huge agri­cul­tur­al com­mu­ni­ties.

Anderson: It’s awful­ly hard to visu­al­ize that, isn’t it?

Crouch: Yeah, but they were. I mean, they were the bread bas­ket for Manhattan. So, it’s only been in recent mem­o­ry that that’s changed, and a lot of where my inspi­ra­tion for this work comes from is from the French bioin­ten­sive gar­den­ers. These were gar­den­ers with­in the Parisian city lim­its that would grow food in small parcels of land. And prob­a­bly the most sig­nif­i­cant thing is that they were able to do all of that because they were able to uti­lize the waste from their trans­porta­tion sys­tem to grow very fer­tile veg­eta­bles. And we don’t see any­one now fig­ur­ing out how can you har­bor the fumes of diesel. And I think there’s a big metaphor in that, of think­ing about what else in our world is dis­card­ed and has plen­ty of use. And even think­ing about our peo­ple, of how many peo­ple in our com­mu­ni­ties are just writ­ten off as being, you know, they have no use. And yet they have tons of poten­tial, and tons of inter­est, and yet haven’t even been asked about what they’d want to do.

Anderson: We’ve talked about kind of the nor­mal­i­ty of urban farm­ing his­tor­i­cal­ly. And we’ve moved away from that now. How do we bring that back?

Crouch: Even in a com­mu­ni­ty like Detroit, that nor­mal­i­ty is main­tained. Detroit is a city that is large­ly made up of folks that moved here in the Northern migra­tion and brought their agri­cul­tur­al her­itage with them. And so the idea of hav­ing gar­dens in your side lot is actu­al­ly quite nor­mal in a city like Detroit. 

But on a broad­er scale, I think we need to stop think­ing of cities as just being a col­lec­tion of hous­ing and busi­ness­es. In some ways, I sort of think of humans in cities as almost being like factory-farmed ani­mals. We’re pent up, and the only val­ue that we have is that which is an eco­nom­ic dri­ver. You know, when you put a chick­en in a cage, you say, The only val­ue have, basi­cal­ly, is lay­ing eggs.” But if you have a chick­en out­side and you let it freely roam, and you start see­ing wow, it has all these oth­er val­ues, that you get to watch it hav­ing a dust bath and feed­ing its chicks and find­ing bugs and scratch­ing. And there’s intrin­sic val­ue in that. It is express­ing its very much it’s chicken-ness, you know. 

And for humans, the only val­ue that we hold in cities is that which pro­vides for the eco­nom­ic sys­tem. And so those ideas of stretch­ing our our legs out and enjoy­ing the sun­shine, but that’s real­ly not that impor­tant. And being able to hear bird songs, and being able to have our food close at hand, that’s not real­ly seen as being impor­tant, I think, to the dom­i­nant sys­tem.

And so my think­ing is how do we design sys­tems that pro­vide for every aspect of our human­i­ty? How do we design a city that cares for all of our needs? You know it’s not just think­ing about shel­ter, but it’s think­ing about our food and our air and so, obvi­ous­ly the types of indus­try we have are very dif­fer­ent, because we have to make sure that our air and our water is clean. And that our food is read­i­ly avail­able, and that we have spaces for con­tem­pla­tion and reflec­tion. And that we have places for com­muning with each oth­er.

In a lot of ways, I don’t think that com­muning with oth­er human beings is real­ly some­thing that’s val­ued by the dom­i­nant sys­tem, either, because there’s not that much mon­ey to be made. People don’t spend that much mon­ey when they talk to each oth­er. But there’s some­thing much deep­er about that, of the con­ver­sa­tion. We tend to think of the only way that we com­mu­ni­cate is via speech. And yet right now I’m com­mu­ni­cat­ing with you in much sub­tler ways than you and I real­ize. But it con­veys infor­ma­tion much deep­er than that sim­ple con­ver­sa­tion.

Anderson: That makes this urban farm that we’re star­ing at here kind of the spear­head of this real­ly giant idea that you just put for­ward, which I want to get into more. But the idea of, what does our civ­i­liza­tion val­ue? And you men­tioned, this is inter­est­ing because this gar­den comes from the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. So we’re talk­ing about a Franciscan order. It’s built, ulti­mate­ly, on a the­o­log­i­cal or spir­i­tu­al notion of…what?

Crouch: Me, I think it’s open to…I guess maybe it’s not open to all inter­pre­ta­tions. But I mean, I think the way that dif­fer­ent fri­ars inter­pret it. But I think that cer­tain­ly jus­tice is a huge foun­da­tion for the Capuchins. I think also a rela­tion­ship that the Earth is a huge part of the Capuchins. And I think rela­tion­ship with sis­ter and broth­er, as it’s usu­al­ly artic­u­lat­ed, of that rela­tion­ship with com­mu­ni­ty, is impor­tant. And so I think cer­tain­ly that’s part of the rea­son why these things are impor­tant. But we…I mean, we have peo­ple here that are Buddhists and Muslims and athe­ists and agnos­tics that come out. And I think part of the rea­son why those val­ues res­onate is because they’re so intrin­si­cal­ly human. 

Anderson: Something that comes up a lot in this project, and in any search for sort of fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent ideas, is that the old is new again. And that’s very much the feel­ing I have now, where we’ve talked about what seems fun­da­men­tal­ly new is maybe the past hun­dred years in America and Europe, and not the pre­vi­ous eons and eons of his­to­ry and pre­his­to­ry. Does that seem like a fair…

Crouch: Yeah. I think espe­cial­ly with­in folks that are of white European descent, we often­times tend to think of the way that our cul­ture is now, is the way that it has always been. We think, Oh, we’ve always had this idea of pri­vate land use. And we always had this eco­nom­ic sys­tem.” And yet, if we look back, we had rela­tion­ships with the land and with the world that are are much more in com­mon with most indige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. Folks fought tooth and nail to avoid the enclo­sure move­ment and very much believed that they had a right to pieces of land where they could col­lect their med­i­cine and their their food and their fuel from.

We think, Oh, it’s always been that way.” And yet when we think about it both on a civ­i­liza­tion lev­el, and on a geo­log­i­cal lev­el, and on a human lev­el, it’s like a blip, this this move­ment. And I’m not a Luddite and sug­gest­ing that we need to go back to that, but I think that we have failed to learn lessons from that.

Anderson: So, if we’re inter­est­ed in restor­ing a cer­tain type of appre­ci­a­tion for say, human rela­tion­ships, or rela­tion­ships with the land. And we know that over the past sev­er­al cen­turies we’ve moved away from that, what is a sys­tem that is stop­ping us from get­ting back to that?

Crouch: Well, I don’t think that those rela­tion­ships, again, are in the best inter­est of the cur­rent eco­nom­ic sys­tem. If you’re view­ing the world in a way of efficiency,they don’t work. I think part of it is that we need to rede­fine effi­cien­cy, actu­al­ly. We have these com­post sifters over here. They’re very sim­ple. They’re just wood and some chick­en wire pulled over top. And you throw com­post, and grav­i­ty drops it, and the small stuff falls through and the big stuff falls to the oth­er side. So they’re not that effi­cient, they’re kin­da slow, they take awhile. 

And I was talk­ing with a gen­tle­man who was an engi­neer and was talk­ing about, Oh, we need to motor­ized these things and put a jog­ger on it and…” And I said, Well, you know, I don’t…I don’t real­ly like all the noise of it, and that sort of thing. And I don’t like the fumes. You know they just kind of…fatigues me. So I’d rather not. It seems well enough for me.” After a while, he gave up and we start talk­ing a bit longer. We start­ed talk­ing about his reli­gious upbring­ing, and his expe­ri­ence with faith. We start talk­ing about phi­los­o­phy and meet­ing his wife, and… This is a gen­tle­man that I didn’t know real­ly well. But I learned just a huge amount about him in about an hour and a half-long peri­od. We had this just deeply amaz­ing con­ver­sa­tion. And after we got done, he thanked me. He said, You know, thanks for that con­ver­sa­tion.” And I said, Well, it’s a lot bet­ter than the con­ver­sa­tion you woul­da had with that diesel engine, isn’t it?”

We often­times view effi­cien­cy in this way of get­ting work done as fast as pos­si­ble. But isn’t it amaz­ing­ly effi­cient to be get­ting work done and learn­ing about each oth­er and mak­ing a friend­ship? Like, all of a sud­den that seems extreme­ly effi­cient to me. And I think maybe the oth­er thing is that we need to take the long view. You know, what seems very effi­cient on the short view seems high­ly inef­fi­cient on the long view.

Anderson: With the idea of effi­cien­cy, though, it has become so nor­mal­ized. How do you get peo­ple away from the idea that we are just sort of mea­sured in terms of our pro­duc­tive capac­i­ty, if that is one of the the crises of the world that we live in now? 

Crouch: Part of it is that I think we need to think about that for most of us the rea­son that we desire income is because of the things that it will pro­vide us with. It feels pret­ty darn good to know that I have a place to lay my head. Also, hav­ing not had health insur­ance, it feels real­ly good to know that… I mean, I crashed my bike yes­ter­day and got up and I wasn’t like, Damn am I going to have to go to the hos­pi­tal and expect a real­ly huge med­ical bill?”

So part of that is maybe think­ing back to what it is that our pri­or­i­ties, and what we actu­al­ly want in this world, and how do we think about them in a way that doesn’t require pur­chas­ing them. 

Anderson: That’s sort of an enor­mous idea, isn’t it? 

Crouch: I sup­pose it is. That we’ve been some­what indoc­tri­nat­ed in the idea that you have to pur­chase every­thing. Most of those things that we need, we actu­al­ly can can obtain in oth­er means. For the most part those that are try­ing to do it in oth­er means have to work real­ly hard at it, and it’s because we’ve struc­tured the world in a way that it makes it very hard for them.

I think also there’s that scarci­ty think­ing that real­ly goes into it, of this thought that there is only so much in the world and there­fore you know, must acquire it, and we must hoard it. I’m not sure that I believe at our cur­rent growth rate and what we’re doing to our world, we do have enough for every­one. Not cer­tain­ly in the way that we live now.

But do we have enough for every­one to be liv­ing in a very base lev­el exis­tence? That’s pos­si­ble. I was ram­bling and didn’t go any­where.

Anderson: That…well it taps into a lot of inter­est­ing themes that’ve come up. And there’s one that’s just like, an imme­di­ate con­nec­tion, which is a con­ver­sa­tion I’m edit­ing and I’m prob­a­bly going to post tonight or tomor­row, with a guy named Robert Zubrin of The Mars Society. 

And I’d sort of gone into this con­ver­sa­tion think­ing we were going to talk about space. We end­ed up talk­ing about envi­ron­men­tal­ism. He frames it as an anti-human move­ment. By struc­tur­ing the world, in your mind, as finite, you cre­ate basi­cal­ly sys­tems that encour­age total­i­tar­i­an states to man­age scarce resources. You have to lim­it human free­dom. And you end up in states of war. And he feels that resources are infi­nite, even on the plan­et, because human cre­ativ­i­ty is infi­nite. And so, he’s a def­i­nite tech­no­log­i­cal pos­i­tivist. How do you respond to ideas like that?

Crouch: I’m not a big fan of sort of the tech­noutopia idea that we can come up with new solu­tions that will get us out of this mess that we sort of seem to be on. I mean, it’s pos­si­ble that we could, but we’ve nev­er cho­sen to to have the mind­set to restrict our­selves, to say, In com­ing up with solu­tions, we will not con­sid­er solu­tions that require us to extract petro­le­um, or require the death of oth­er oth­er species.” 

And I also have some real issues with the envi­ron­men­tal move­ment, most­ly because I think that it tends to val­ue…nature, which I think is a strange con­cept, over human beings. And it cre­ates this sit­u­a­tion where we are sep­a­rat­ed from that, and the idea is to con­serve the world, to pro­tect it from our­selves, essen­tial­ly. To me that fur­thers that sep­a­ra­tion. It almost accel­er­ates the prob­lem of because we do not see it as being the fate of all species in the world as being the fate of our­selves, you know. That we’re not inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed with that.

Anderson: I’m think­ing of the peo­ple I’ve spo­ken to who see the world as just mate­r­i­al stuff, who maybe find val­ue on an individually-created basis. A lot of these things that we’ve been talk­ing about, these intan­gi­ble things, aren’t vis­i­ble for them. And they’re fine, but they’re oth­er people’s sort of spiritual…beliefs. That is not some­thing that you can test in a lab. You can’t demon­strate the exis­tence of val­ue in the face-to-face con­ver­sa­tion we’re hav­ing right now. The bio­cen­trists I’ve tend­ed to talk to have often been more read­i­ly will­ing to admit that their val­ue comes from an intan­gi­ble place, call that spir­i­tu­al or some­thing else. It feels like they’re just real­ly dif­fer­ent views of the world. Do you think that’s some­thing that can ever be bridged?

Crouch: I mean, I’m not a per­son that’s against sci­ence or any­thing like that.

Anderson: No, I don’t mean to frame it is sci­ence ver­sus non-science—

Crouch: No, but I mean… To think of it as all just being mat­ter doesn’t make it any less amaz­ing to me. You know, I don’t real­ly spend too much time fig­ur­ing out what I believe. I think I just spend a lot of time being. So, I’m will­ing to accept the idea that all this stuff was out of some giant explo­sion and mol­e­cules came togeth­er. That’s pret­ty amaz­ing to me, actu­al­ly. Like, that still bril­liant, and won­der­ful. And that things are evolv­ing and chang­ing and work­ing, some­times togeth­er but some­times in oppo­si­tion, but at the same time work­ing togeth­er, you know. I don’t know that I find myself in this place where I’m against sci­ence. And I’m also real­ly against a lot of the sort of woo woo neo­pa­gan belief sys­tems. But I’m also not opposed to rela­tion­ships that give us greater affin­i­ty to our oth­er crea­tures, you know.

But I think the biggest thing is for a view point where you just think of the world as a series of stuff that we can use. To me, that’s where the real insult comes of This is not my play­ground. This is not my place to exploit.” I mean, I think a lot of peo­ple don’t like the idea of stew­ard­ship, some­times. And I think peo­ple see it as com­ing from like sort of a Christian idea that we are stew­ards of the land. But I’m not sure that I see it at that point. I think of it as more of this way of that we are all stew­ards for the world.

Anderson: That still has a sense of, we bear some sort of respon­si­bil­i­ty for it, right?

Crouch: Sure. I mean, again it’s self serv­ing. I can’t see why valu­ing every­thing is still not sort of an anthro­pocen­tric view­point of that— 

Anderson: Right. There’s a fal­la­cy in bio­cen­trism itself, that as a human you can’t not be anthro­pocen­tric.

Crouch: Yeah.

Anderson: You can’t know what it’s like to be a sun­flower over there.

Crouch: No. I mean, I can go stand near the sun­flower all day and hang out. But yeah, I’m nev­er going to under­stand every aspect of it. And my val­ue for the sunflower’s not just because it’s… I mean there’s… I think sun­flow­ers are beau­ti­ful. And if we broke it down and start­ed just talk­ing about the val­ue, anthro­pocen­tri­cal­ly, of like, oh well it caus­es pho­to­syn­the­sis and it heals the land, all those sort of things I men­tioned before, the beau­ty is also an amaz­ing part of what we are giv­en.

Anderson: And that seems like kind of the intan­gi­ble. There’s some sort of bridge here between the world of just atoms and stuff, and then sort of the world we’ve been talk­ing about of greater ideas of qual­i­ty and val­ue. I don’t know how to talk about that world with­out fram­ing it in a way that makes it sound spir­i­tu­al. Beauty is a dif­fer­ent way of get­ting to it that is maybe an idea of val­ue shorn of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. But it’s still got some sort of intan­gi­ble qual­i­ty to it, doesn’t it?

Crouch: Yeah, and I guess for a lack of words so that I can relate to oth­er peo­ple, I often­times do talk about this idea of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. And I don’t…I’m reluc­tant because I’m wor­ried that it’ll be inter­pret­ed as as a reli­gious con­cept. And yet there’s some­thing at least that I expe­ri­ence, where my heart rate is dimin­ished, and my aware­ness is ele­vat­ed, and… So, if that’s spir­i­tu­al­i­ty then I’m okay with that, I guess. But I’m not defin­ing it as being any­thing.

Anderson: It could just be some sort of neu­ro­chem­i­cal state.

Crouch: Hey. you know what, in com­post there’s a bac­te­ria, appar­ent­ly, that caus­es your brain to release sero­tonin, so that it—

Anderson: [laugh­ing] Why aren’t we record­ing over there?

Crouch: Yeah, we can go roll in the com­post next. 

Anderson: I think I’ll pass.

Crouch: So, we’ve bro­ken it down into a sci­en­tif­ic basis.

Anderson: Right.

Crouch: Does that mean that I want you to start bot­tling that and start giv­ing me com­post smells instead of that? No, because now I don’t get to make com­post, so now we’ve dimin­ished my effi­cien­cy.

Anderson: You know, could you have a val­ue sys­tem, some­thing that’s more intan­gi­ble, that is admit­ted­ly just a series of chem­i­cal states? And would that not deval­ue it? Like, kind of know­ing that my sense of com­muning with the land, or just appre­ci­at­ing the land, or inter­con­nec­tion with all these things, it’s ulti­mate­ly just a set of rela­tion­ships that doesn’t real­ly have any greater mean­ing or pur­pose. And I can iso­late them all, I can see them with fMRIs. And can you do all that and can you still say, But it has val­ue.” Or does doing all of that, does under­stand­ing it in that way, some­how sap some­thing out of it?

Crouch: I mean, I think it dimin­ish­es our whole expe­ri­ence. We can’t iso­late any of those things. It’s not just the stim­uli, any one stim­uli. So could you do all of those things and then it would be the same expe­ri­ence? I guess I’d have to expe­ri­ence it. But would some­body be like, Hey, you can climb into this appa­ra­tus and it’s going to seem like you’re doing the real thing.” I think I’d prob­a­bly come out of it feel­ing a lit­tle bit like I’d watched porn, or some­thing, you know? There’s some­thing a lit­tle bit dirty in it. There’s some­thing unrec­i­p­ro­cal about it, I think is what the issue is.

Anderson: Ah, you’re pas­sive in that.

Crouch: I’m pas­sive in it, and that there’s no one else that is involved in it. It’s [a] high­ly self­ish way of relat­ing to the world. But it’s also not real­ly allow­ing you the full expe­ri­ence of the world. 

Anderson: Though, if you were say, in some­thing like that where you could expe­ri­ence all those things and relate with them, would that be okay? Like if it became rec­i­p­ro­cal but it was still fake?

Crouch: I guess the ques­tion is at what point does fake become real?

Anderson: Right. Exactly. When are we into the hyper­re­al?

Crouch: Why would we want to make all that fake, though? You know, if we already have the real thing?

Anderson: I don’t know. I guess there’s an assump­tion that we can make it bet­ter. The sec­ond per­son I talked to was named Max More, and he’s a tran­shu­man­ist. And he’s very inter­est­ed in ideas of chang­ing and improv­ing and delib­er­ate­ly mod­i­fy­ing what we are as peo­ple. Which is a con­cept that’s made a lot of peo­ple real­ly uncom­fort­able on this project. Because it ques­tions if there is any­thing intrin­si­cal­ly human, and where do you get val­ues and ethics in a world in which there is no fixed human­i­ty.

Crouch: I’m not sure that there’s any­thing intrin­si­cal­ly more valu­able about humans than there is intrin­si­cal­ly valu­able being a chip­munk. And even the idea of like, there’s an improve­ment upon… I don’t know how I’d know I was a bet­ter human. You’re either human or you’re not. At that point you—

Anderson: I think for them, because val­ue is total­ly with­in the self, there is no greater sys­tem of ethics or val­ues, then improve­ment is mea­sured by your­self. Did you always want to live much longer? If you’re able to genet­i­cal­ly engi­neer your­self in such a way that you do, then that is valu­able to you, on your met­rics.

Crouch: I’m a bee­keep­er. And I spent a lot of time with bees, and they’re real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing in the way that they work. And we tend to look at a bee and say, Look at that indi­vid­ual bee, fly­ing around doing bee stuff.” It’s very easy for us to think of it as being an indi­vid­ual bee when it’s out in the field for­ag­ing for flow­ers. But the real­i­ty is that it’s not even real­ly tech­ni­cal­ly its own organ­ism, real­ly, because it can’t ful­ly repro­duce on its own. It requires a rela­tion­ship with all of the oth­er bees in order to get every­thing done. And I think humans, we often­times think of our­selves as being mas­sive­ly indi­vid­ual. And we think of our­selves as being able to do what­ev­er we want. And the real­i­ty is that we are inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed with each oth­er. You know, I am not going to spring forth an off­spring right now. I have to have a rela­tion­ship with at least one. And even two peo­ple togeth­er would be a pret­ty sad human exis­tence, I think.

The major­i­ty of human exis­tence has been deeply com­mu­nal. I think there’s some­thing really…like, to just think that you have the right to be what­ev­er you want and that you have a com­plete­ly indi­vid­ual moral idea, and that comes only from your­self? I mean…that’s so self­ish in a lot of ways, to com­plete­ly dis­cred­it every human being that you come across that’s impact­ed you. I find that really…just insult­ing in a lot of ways.

I am not the per­son I was ten min­utes ago, and to think that…you know, espe­cial­ly to think that I don’t owe oth­er folks… And so I think that we have to real­ize that our moral­i­ty and out ethics are some­what of a com­mu­nal idea, that it’s not formed by any one indi­vid­ual, that we work togeth­er in form­ing those ideas. And so, I’m not sure if we have a right nec­es­sar­i­ly to just decide we can make mas­sive changes to who we are as humans. 

Anderson: Indirectly, we’ve talked about some of that the crises of the present, in a way, indi­vid­u­al­ism maybe being one. Or hyper­indi­vid­u­al­ism being one, maybe the idea of valu­ing peo­ple as indi­vid­ual eco­nom­ic units, maybe that’s anoth­er. But is this a time where we real­ly need to be hav­ing some­thing like the Conversation?

Crouch: I guess I would think that there’d be some­thing kind of wrong if each gen­er­a­tion didn’t think that they need­ed to have the Conversation, and didn’t think that they were at the turn­ing point. And the only time we can actu­al­ly tell will be when we look back and say, Oh, that was the big turn­ing moment.” 

I guess for me, look­ing at cli­mate change, look­ing at dis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth, it seems as though we are push­ing up against a point at which we, whether or not we want it to be that great shift, we will have very lim­it­ed choic­es.


Micah Saul: So how do you feel about being a part of the hive?

Aengus Anderson: [laughs] It makes me think of all the road signs in Utah, where all the state routes are marked with bee­hives with num­bers on them. But I guess that’s a lit­tle beside the point. 

So, the individual/community ten­sion. We talked bio­cen­trism, anthro­pocen­trism for so long, but here we are again talk­ing individual/community.

Saul: You know, it’s fun­ny. We expect­ed that to be a real­ly big theme from the start, and it actu­al­ly took a while to work its way in to the con­ver­sa­tion to the lev­el it cur­rent­ly is.

Anderson: Yeah, and it seems like it’s real­ly picked up, and I won­der if that’s us real­iz­ing that I’m steer­ing things a lit­tle dif­fer­ent­ly, or if it’s just that we’ve had a dif­fer­ent type of thinker late­ly. Or that we’ve been able to explore the anthro/bio ten­sion in a lot of ways and I’ve just cut it out of the con­ver­sa­tions because it feels like we’ve run over that ground before. Though that’s cer­tain­ly in here. We’ll get into that more I think a lit­tle lat­er in this out­ro.

Do you want to start with his sense of his­to­ry?

Saul: I think that’s a great place to start. He’s got a much much longer view of his­to­ry than I think well, most peo­ple. Of course it made me imme­di­ate­ly think of Alexander over at Long Now. But he’s got this idea that the cur­rent sys­tem, that’s incred­i­bly new, the idea that agri­cul­ture is out­side of the cities, is this sep­a­rate enti­ty that exists over there. Or the idea that pri­vate prop­er­ty, of course we have pri­vate prop­er­ty. These are rel­a­tive­ly new things in his­to­ry, and he points that out, and I thought that was cool. 

Anderson: And you almost need to have those in mind as you move for­ward through this con­ver­sa­tion. Think of the present as some­thing that could be con­struct­ed in a lot of dif­fer­ent ways. And then when you get into his sug­ges­tion that our neces­si­ties for life should be tak­en out of the econ­o­my, which sounds crazy if you’re look­ing at now as this sort of eter­nal moment. But it doesn’t sound crazy if you’re look­ing at all of his­to­ry.

Saul: I mean, what he’s propos­ing is a return to the com­mons, which is some­thing that has come up here and there so far in The Conversation, but this is the first time anybody’s real­ly address­ing that head on.

Anderson: And maybe it’s only the com­mons in cer­tain areas. It’s the com­mons in food. It’s prob­a­bly the com­mons in water. Maybe it’s the com­mons in…I don’t know, shel­ter. A lot of us have heard the air anal­o­gy before, but I think he real­ly makes it work.

Crouch: What do you think you did dif­fer­ent­ly that oth­er peo­ple don’t, when mak­ing that anal­o­gy?

Anderson: I think the way he makes the air anal­o­gy work is that he gives you the imme­di­ate exam­ple of peo­ple in maybe pre­his­to­ry being denied access to a for­est, where you could go and find food or med­i­cine or lum­ber.

Saul: What I find inter­est­ing about that is now I cer­tain­ly wouldn’t assume I have the right to go into any for­est and har­vest lum­ber to build my own house. So it’s inter­est­ing how just by bring­ing econ­o­my into what we assume are the basic rights, it’s amaz­ing how quick­ly those can sud­den­ly seem to be non-rights. It becomes a lot eas­i­er to imag­ine a world in which we would have to pay for our air. What actu­al­ly makes some­thing a right?

Anderson: And obvi­ous­ly in the case of the Capuchins, there’s an easy answer right there, and you can just say God.

Saul: Right. But with Patrick, who seems…well, comes across any­way as being fair­ly sec­u­lar, where does that right come from?

Anderson: And that’s inter­est­ing, because as we talk about that he men­tions peo­ple of all these dif­fer­ent faith tra­di­tions who are involved in the Capuchin Soup Kitchen, and non-faiths. And he feels that there’s some­thing sort of essen­tial­ly human about sup­port­ing oth­er peo­ple and help­ing them at least live.

Saul: Have we sort of arrived then at Patrick’s idea of the good? That sort of fun­da­men­tal ara­tional belief? Is it that—

Anderson: That peo­ple deserve the right to live.

Saul: Yeah. I guess—

Anderson: I mean, when you frame it like that, right, it’s just appalling that when you think about peo­ple who can’t make it in our mar­ket soci­ety, and we’re okay with that.

Saul: And I think this is the per­fect time to bring in his bee anal­o­gy, because I think that’s just the sys­tem that would allow the peo­ple in that neigh­bor­hood to just die. That’s a direct result of the high­ly indi­vid­u­al­ized mind­set that our our soci­ety seems to be based on. It’s a com­plete rejec­tion of sys­tems think­ing.

Anderson: Do you find this whole hive busi­ness per­sua­sive? I mean, we’re not bees, after all. By liken­ing us to bees, you’re doing peo­ple a dis­ser­vice as indi­vid­ual agents. 

Saul: It’s not meant to be an equal­i­ty, it’s just meant to be an anal­o­gy. And as an anal­o­gy I think it does work fair­ly well. Because yes, we all have indi­vid­ual agency. But at some point, you have to look at the col­lec­tive. In my mind, I mean this is you know, per­son­al bias alert. But it’s not real­ly one way or the oth­er. I absolute­ly think that indi­vid­ual agency is incred­i­bly impor­tant. But I also view the col­lec­tive as being crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant. So there’s that mid­dle ground, some­where, that needs to be found. 

Anderson: Well, and speak­ing of the mid­dle ground, let’s talk about anoth­er mid­dle ground. Patrick charts a mid­dle way in his con­ver­sa­tion between a lot of our thinkers who are very sec­u­lar and phys­i­cal­ist, maybe some­times anthro­pocen­tric, not always, and oth­er thinkers who are maybe much more will­ing to say that their per­spec­tives are large­ly shaped by a spir­i­tu­al sense of our con­nec­tion with oth­er beings, or the intrin­sic val­ue of life.

Saul: As he says, he’s not a Luddite. He respects sci­ence, he respects tech­nol­o­gy. But he also very much has that sense that nature is…I’m going to use the word mag­i­cal. And that our rela­tion­ship with nature is, there is some­thing there beyond just stuff. So do you think any­body could be suc­cess­ful in strik­ing a mid­dle ground? Is a mid­dle ground between these two things pos­si­ble?

Anderson: I don’t know. And I mean, I think that’s some­thing that I’ve been think­ing about as this project goes along. How can you find val­ue any­where with­out it being to some extent spir­i­tu­al? Are you ever per­suad­ed by peo­ple who say, I am com­plete­ly sec­u­lar. Science uncov­ers all these mys­ter­ies in the uni­verse, and some­how that gives me a sense of val­ue that isn’t spir­i­tu­al.” I just…I’ll always think that is some­how a spir­i­tu­al sense of val­ue.

Saul: Yeah.

Anderson: Even if you are essen­tial­ly wor­ship­ing com­plex­i­ty, which I think we’ve seen a lot of times in this series. Patrick men­tions we must be anthro­pocen­tric. We have no choice. And yet we must also under­stand that we’re con­nect­ed to all of these oth­er things. That may be true, but I don’t see how that argues against some­one like Robert Zubrin, who would say, Yeah sure we’re part of the same sys­tem, and we’re going to use it to our advan­tage. And all we need to do is make sure that sys­tem keeps us alive,” right.

So I think if you real­ly want to hold philo­soph­i­cal ground where you’re say­ing that oth­er life forms, that we could prob­a­bly do with­out… If you’re say­ing that those life­forms have val­ue, I don’t see how you can do that with­out some­thing more than just sys­tems think­ing.

Saul: So I think that’s actu­al­ly a per­fect segue into talk­ing about the next con­ver­sa­tion.

Anderson: You mean with Tim Cannon of Grindhouse Wetware?

Saul: Exactly. Tim Cannon is going to talk about… Well, he’s going to talk about not only every­thing else being maybe unnec­es­sary, he’s going to talk about the human body itself and biol­o­gy being unnec­es­sary. In the past, we talked to Max More, who coined the phrase tran­shu­man­ism.” Well, Tim Cannon and Grindhouse Wetware embody the ideas of tran­shu­man­ism. They are DIY base­ment bio­hack­ers try­ing to move human­i­ty beyond itself. 

Anderson: That was Patrick Crouch, record­ed at the Earthworks Organic Farm in Detroit, Michigan on August 172012.

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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