Intuitively, farm living augurs well for the ecology. But how well? Let’s explore in detail.
I was witnessing the reaction of three gentlemen to the Government of India’s ambitious Smart Cities project, which promised to build 100 smart cities in the country. One had gleam in his eyes, the other shuddered at the thought and the third was watching them closely – he obviously had an agenda.
The gleam in the eyes of the first gentleman emanated from the prospect of jump in demand for capital goods, the consequential employment and the derivative growth in other industries. He was an economist.
The second gentleman shuddered at the thought because he related the infrastructure build-up with massive increase in quarrying, mining, deforestation, the resultant increase in vehicular traffic, thus emissions and many such connected issues. He was an ecologist.
The third gentleman moderated the discussion. I could notice that he was trying to convince the ecologist that the adverse ecological impact was neither as large nor likely too soon. The ecologist‘s assessment was exaggerated, but the third gentleman was careful not to get to the correct assessment – lest the ambitious plan is jeopardised. He was a politician.
I am a common man. The politician convinces me that he’s doing all he can for my development and progress. Incidentally, his predecessors educated me on what development and progress meant. For the first three decades of my life, I considered my education as the gospel truth and lived a blissful life – worked hard for success and celebrated my achievements.
After that, whenever I independently assessed my journey, I realised that my economic needs (including my wants and desires) were not really unlimited, unlike what my economics textbooks taught me. I noticed that people around me were unquestioningly consuming – food, textiles, construction, recreation, medicines and lot more. They were under a spell – a spell which convinced them that the more they consumed, the better off they were. I thought it better to consume just what I need (including wants and desires).
Growth was another intriguing subject. They seemed to always measure growth in financial terms. I started differentiating between economic growth and financial growth. But my understanding was hardly relevant to the outside world. I felt that financial growth had a purpose and when financial growth itself became the purpose, it was malignant.
I calculated that I have had sufficient financial growth and I ought to pursue other economic and non-economic growth. That is when we moved to live on the farm. The strength of conviction that it made perfect economic sense to pursue a life on the farm enabled us to tide over the difficulties of adapting to a farm life. Eventually, as a family, we have settled on the farm.
What did the world look like from the farm? The system started becoming more and more distanced from our lives. The contrast of our life with those living under the system became more and more pronounced every day. Their economic model (measured only in financial terms) ruled supreme. Everything else was subordinate. Education was designed to meet the economic goals. Ecological concerns were allowed to surface only to the extent that they don’t derail the economic growth. There were indicators for health, nutrition, happiness, pollution, etc, but largely restricted to academic pursuits. Governments have no option but to toe the line of economic (rather, financial) growth. In a bid to bypass the ever increasing difficulty to sustain financial growth and to create a differentiator, political parties have been pursuing other agenda – identity politics based on religion, ethnicity, caste, nationalism etc. But these are old school and may not sustain the steam.
On the farm of course, life is beautiful, but that is not the point of this article.
The point here is whether there is a substantial macro ecological impact, which compels us to consider farm living as a systemic alternative. Stated below is my assessment of the impact of farm living on the economic and the ecological aspects. Though the focus here is to highlight the ecological impact, the economic paradigm is integral to the possibility of actually getting there. The economic aspect of farm living calls for a detailed explanation, but for the purpose of this article, I’m stating it very briefly.
On the farm, part of our economic needs are met through self effort – we do a bit of farming, tend to a cow, home-school our kids, entertain ourselves by roaming in the farm or trekking on the nearby mountain, wash our clothes, take care of our health by exercising regularly and eating healthy. Also, we’re able to avoid high incidence of value depleting consumption, almost inevitable in our erstwhile city life – junk / processed food, pollution of various kinds, an imbalanced lifestyle, medication and socially compulsive products & services. On the farm, we do engage in financial transaction for some economic needs –mobile phone, petrol, train tickets, occasional labour, part of the food basket and some other needs. But the need for money is significantly lower as compared to our erstwhile city life. Though we do not add much do the GDP, our economic needs are, arguably, better met.
Shifting to farm living was possible only because of a radical shift in the economic paradigm – fulfilment of economic needs (including wants & desires) is indicator of economic well being rather than statistical measurement of GDP or per capita income. Fulfilment of economic need ought to be measured subjectively by the incumbent rather than objectively calculated by a statistician. Thus, I can certify that our economic needs are fulfilled irrespective of which socio-economic class a statistician puts us in.
Since the pivotal aspect – the economic one, is so different from the rest of the world, the impact on some macro ecological concerns is massive. It is so substantial that in my opinion, for the ecological impact alone, governments, NGOs and the opinion leaders ought to promote farm living as an alternative method of living. (Of course, for that to happen, they need to re-imagine economics.) Let me elaborate and let me restrict to the impact on water and energy. For the reader, the clue is sufficient to think through the impact on waste management, air pollution, bio-diversity, climate change, etc.
We practice natural farming – the ancient method of farming, which preserves the organic matter in the soil and relies on decomposition of this organic matter for plant nutrition. Natural farming is a large subject in itself, but what is relevant here is that the water requirement is significantly lower. It also lays emphasis on bio-diversity and multi-cropping, which is another ecological issue with the current paradigm of development. Agriculture constitutes significantly to the per capita water consumption. The prevalent economic paradigm (market determined prices, pressure on yield, pressure on farmers earn more) does not augur well for natural farming. This can be argued, but deeper understanding will clarify beyond doubt that it doesn’t. Farm Living, if largely adopted, will increase the practice of natural farming and will eventually reduce the water consumption and restore bio-diversity. At a micro-level, this is visible at our farm.
The water consumption other than agricultural water is also an important aspect. All our water is directed into the farm – so we don’t attempt to take a bath with less water; on the contrary, we use more water. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that not a drop goes flows out of the farm – not even sewage water. There is no flush in our toilet because we use a dry compost toilet. We also harvest the rain-water in a trench around the farm, thereby recharging ground water. Though we haven’t formally calculated, I’m pretty confident that the amount of water that percolates is many times the water we draw – including for agriculture.
So, when we read about the water crisis facing the country and the world at large, it is amusing and shocking at the same time. Amusing, because the solution is right here and shocking because it is being ignored or not considered at all.
Our energy consumption on the farm is fractional of what it was when we lived in the city. There are two parts to the energy consumption – direct and indirect. Our direct consumption of energy is lesser because we don’t need most electrical & electronic equipments – washing machine, air-conditioner, heating appliances, lifts, etc. We use zero electricity in drawing water – we use a hand-pump. We need very less lighting, vehicular fuel and don’t require a fan – living in an open area obviates the need for it. We, however, do use a mixer grinder, an oven, a television, smart phones and laptops. The overall direct energy consumption is a fraction of our city life. The indirect part is the energy spent by government and corporate service providers for the collective benefit of residents of a city. These include building & maintaining high-rise residences and offices, sewage network, water supplies, waste management mechanisms, roads & flyover infrastructure for vehicular traffic, rail network, transportation for food and other consumables….the list just goes on.
Ironically, the per capita energy consumption is considered as the barometer of development for countries. But the ecological price of this energy is quite unaffordable and there is a solution in farm living.
For the purpose of this article, I am limiting myself largely to the ecological benefits of farm living, that too just the cursory ones. A detailed study will show up many more benefits and also quantify the difference in the consumption of water and energy. The economic impact of farm living is also stated very broadly. The idea here is to provoke thought. Additionally, there are significant areas of impact – education, culture, politics, which we aren’t touching upon.
A large scale adoption of farm living should have a significant positive impact on the individual as well as the macro indicators. It will definitely disrupt the economic patterns and will entail pain. However, an overnight adoption is unlikely. It may take years to see any noticeable structural impact. The idea of economic development and education was sold to common people over almost half a century. Selling the idea of farm living may not be as difficult, given that a very large portion of the population resides outside cities and the fact that the lifestyle is very close to the one people lived 50-60 years ago.
Every evolution in society and civilisation has brought disruption, but it has always given time for the society to come to terms with the new rules of the game. If farm living does acquire an evolutionary proportion, it will bring along its own challenges. The question is this – do we intuitively feel there is hope in this direction and if yes, are we willing to invest (much effort and little money) in it?
There is an economist within me as well as an ecologist. On the farm, both of them live in harmony with each other. I hope that one day the first two gentlemen I referred to in the beginning (economist and the ecologist) are on the same side of the argument and the third uses his influence over people to sell to them this alternative reality.