Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Development issues in the US

So… one of the messages from the readings on technology transfer and development is the unapplicability of “Northern” methods of agricultural technology within the “South”. Much of the South’s problems stem from colonial and post-colonial relationships with it and the North. One of the greatest questions I had as a child and traveling around East Asia was why certain methods were deemed to be “gospel” and others merely laughable attempts at order. (And why was order always such a sought-after goal?)

Some of the cultural mindset presented in the reading can easily be seen by the reactions of new transplants in Phoenix, AZ to xeriscape: “Why is everything dead?” With the mindset that a yard (a type of landscape taken from a culture matched with a certain climate) must be a green plot of land, people in the Southwest have produced the most bizarre type of scenery I’ve seen in the country – turgid cacti growing on fertilized and watered monoculture lawns, and probably wonder why their water bills are so high and why their expensive saguaro cacti keep turning spongy and dying. This is akin to what Scott wrote in his chapter:

The logic of beginning with an ideal genotype and then transforming nature to accord with its growing conditions has some predictable consequences. [Farm experiment] extension work essentially becomes the attempt to remake the farmer’s field to suit the genotype. This usually requires the application of nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, which must be purchased and applied at the right moment. It usually also requires a watering regimen that in many cases only irrigation can possibly satisfy. (pg. 302)

The recent ongoing drought has made more people cognizant of the problems that are occurring, viz. water in their region, and some have taken on the idea of bringing the “native” Arizona to their neighborhood.

Of course, one looks at the near-entirety of US agriculture and you see this form of agriculture, much of it in areas that could arguably be better for not enduring the agricultural demands placed upon it. How is the readings on technology transfer any different when it is massively subsidized by internal governmental forces as compared to subsidized by an external government? How do the rural monuments to high modernism – the high dam, the monocrop agricultural field – affect a local mindset? In Arizona it has created the ability to have (prior to the spread of the cities) citrus groves, and green lawns. It has allowed the continuation of flood irrigation throughout the Southwest. It has produced the food that feeds the nation, all growing in land that is termed the “breadbasket” of the nation. However, if you look at metrics behind the numbers providing this surplus of food, you see a disturbing trend: high levels of groundwater consumption and elevated levels of fertilizer and pesticide application (and leaching) to name two. These have knock-on/peripheral impacts that aren’t felt by those in the region, and by us presently. However, when excess nitrogen fertilizers reach the nitrogen-poor waters of the Gulf of Mexico, they produce anoxic “dead” zones which negatively affects local shrimping and fishing. As groundwater levels drop, the per unit cost of extracting deeper levels increases, cutting into the farmer’s margin. When these resources eventually dry up, then farming will become impossible in these regions. Eventually another source of food will have to be found, or behaviors in production will have to be reconsidered drastically.

The possibility of even contemplating the possibility of using corn (!) to fuel the nation’s transportation needs is an great example of how we have entrained our vision along those of high-modernist constructs (i.e., technologies). It would have been ludicrous to even imagine the possibility of growing a nation’s fuel source. And on paper, it seems like it might be possible. However, this is when the calculations don’t take into account “the externalities.” The saying, “the real world is an externality” proves a point here: fueling the nation on corn ethanol is very potentially more polluting than continuing to use petroleum. The problems lie in the variation across space and time; production energy costs; distribution energy costs; and pollution costs.

What is the appropriate social context of a dam? This seems to be a paradoxical question, since we in the US assume dams as part of our landscape – and in Michigan, a part of the landscape that is usually thought of as being “Western” and “over there.” I would argue that much of the United State’s cultural ideation of “dams” has moved strongly away from the thousands of dams that dot Michigan’s waterways (many of which I have to contend with in fieldwork and research). I wonder even how many University of Michigan students think of Argo Dam or Barton Dam over that of Hoover Dam or even Glen Canyon Dam when the word “dam” is mentioned. However, is Hoover Dam in the “appropriate social context”? Upon examining the social context upon which it was built, a liberalist like myself might say that it was a high-modernist statement of man’s dominion over nature, and triumph over the desert. However, as the big dams grew up around the country, controversy came about as to their use and impacts; the social contexts changed, and people no longer felt it was “good” to put large dams along the Colorado River, especially in the Grand Canyon. Large-scale prostrative kow-towing to high-modernist ideals in the form of NAWAPA were dropped from consideration. Yet, obsolescence of ideology sometimes comes with concrete legacies. The lessons of the big dams of the West come as a package with their looming presence.

The above aren’t discussions of the problems of exporting technologies to developing countries, but examples of our own developing understandings of the problems surrounding the experiments that we have been unwittingly conducting with our own use of high-modernist methods. While we may laugh at the “backward” methods of those farmers producing enough for their own needs with their own local knowledge – the “craft” of farming – we should be cognizant of the experiment our previous generations have left running in the background.

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