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
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.
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.
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.
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 17, 2012.
Anderson: So thanks for listening. I’m Aengus Anderson.
Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.
This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.