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.