A citizen movement committed to restoring Vermont to an independent republic, free to pursue life, liberty and happiness unimpeded by the demands of an imperial, corrupt and disintegrating United States.
Given today’s world population of more than 7 billion people, it is clear, now more than ever, that the planet’s resources are strained. In past ages, humans could successfully rely on self-sustaining agriculture or hunting, without ever worrying that food supply may be too short. We now have millions of people living in crowded concrete jungles, all of which require food that can’t be grown in their “backyard.” Today’s industrial agricultural therefore requires vast amounts of oil to operate worldwide, a resource that is approaching or has already reached its peak production on Earth. How can we continue to feed billions of people in a world that relies so heavily on finite resources?
The industrial age, and particularly the “Green Revolution” have brought about sweeping changes in the ways in which we as humans grow and harvest food. In order to keep up with demand from booming populations, we have continually tried to manipulate and perfect nature in order to maximize its potential. From pesticides to genetic modification, we have come under the impression that humans are smarter than nature. In One-Straw Revolutionary by Larry Korn, we learn about the philosophy of Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer who believes that nature will always outperform human advances. Fukuoka, who lived from 1913 to 2008, practiced natural farming or what is also referred as “do-nothing farming.” Korn defines this practice: “Farming as simply as possible within and in cooperation with the natural order, rather than the modern approach of applying increasingly complex techniques to remake nature entirely for the benefit of human beings” (Korn 2). Larry Korn spent more than thirty-five years studying with Fukuoka. Their relationship began when Korn stumbled upon Fukuoka’s farm, after traveling to Japan with no particular motive in mind. From working in the fields to traveling around the United States, Korn followed and befriended Fukuoka as he spread his practice. Through this long-time personal relationship, Korn is able to provide an intimate story of Fukuoka’s personal life and practice.
The biggest and probably most debated aspect of Fukuoka’s philosophy is the idea that humanity knows nothing. The advances of modern science have left us with a feeling of anthropocentric pride; we feel that we can outwit nature at any game. Fukuoka contends that these “advances,” at least in the sense of agriculture, have been a waste of time and effort. His argument states that nature can give us everything that we as humans need, to the extent that we should quite literally be doing nothing at all: “It proceeds from the conviction that if the individual temporarily abandons human will and so allows himself to be guided by nature, nature responds by providing everything” (Korn 1).
The idea that we should lay back and let nature do its work may seem ridiculous to many observers. Food shortages are already an issue around the globe, and they are present while we attempt to maximize production more than ever before. Fukuoka argues that we are actually spending more time trying to fix the problems we have caused through these efforts. For example, pesticides became a worldwide phenomenon in the 1900’s as a way to reduce crop losses. However, early chemicals used in these products were found to be extremely harmful to other elements of the environment, such as bird populations. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring showed the world that these pesticides, which seemed like a great solution at first, were actually as harmful as they were helpful. This type of seemingly useful science resulting in harmful backlash is a trend that Fukuoka wants to avoid altogether, and is an example of what he refers to as wasted efforts.
While the practices of Fukuoka can be highly debated, the idea of “going natural” is becoming increasingly popular worldwide. We can see it in our everyday lives; stores and items that can be labeled as “organic” or “all natural” are always on the rise. While these types of products can often be more expensive to purchase, there is a developing culture that believes in the effectiveness or purity of nature, similarly to Fukuoka. Perhaps this development stems from the effects of science that we’ve come to realize in recent years. We find ourselves in the midst of extreme global warming and droughts that are devastating the agricultural industry, and we begin to question how many scientific advances have actually “advanced” us. It’s commonly estimated that one-third of the world’s arable land has already been lost through erosion and degradation, in which overproduction plays a heavy role. Everyone can witness these effects and rethink nature on their own, but at the global level we’re also seeing great debates about things like genetically modified organisms and sustainable practices. Some may deem Fukuoka’s precise methods as impracticable in such a large world, but his general values are now at the forefront of the environmental movement.
An interesting and meaningful twist in the story of Fukuoka is the fact that he began his career as a research scientist studying plant pathology and microbiology. At only the age of 24, an epiphany led him to abandon his research career and return home to put natural farming to the test. He put his entire future at risk, giving up a prestigious career and salary in order to practice what he believed in. In some way this is what he hopes the world will do as well; we need to slow down. Korn explains this phenomenon that Fukuoka fears: “Our craving for information becomes insatiable whether that knowledge has any practical value or not. The more information we generate, the more distant and fearful the world becomes” (Korn 26). The industry may have to sacrifice monetary values and new scientific research in order to return to natural agricultural practices. In the end this enormous change may prove to pay off, as it did for Fukuoka. However it remains to be seen whether this would even be possible, as the world population grows exponentially and land becomes less available.
Korn’s book is a well-rounded account of a life philosophy and agricultural practice. The in-depth background provided and sequential tale of Fukuoka’s lifetime gives us a look into why he chose to study natural farming, rather than simply explaining what natural farming is. The book also offers a look into Japanese tradition and other farming techniques that may counter Fukuoka’s method. A section of photos in the middle of the book gives us an idea of what Fukuoka’s farms actually looked like and the natural essence of his home. This book would be a good choice for anyone studying the environmental sciences, politics or agriculture. In any area of study, Fukuoka’s philosophy can provide a new perspective on the power of “going natural” in the midst of a culture that has begun to question modern “science.”
Carter Denton is an environmental studies major at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont.