Monday, December 26, 2016

The One-Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka

"We can never know the answers to great spiritual questions, but it's all right not to understand. We have been born and are living on the earth to face directly the reality of living."
-- Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution (112)

This 1978 book is another one that crossed my path by the most random of happenstance, and I'm not sure why I picked it up. Agriculture, alternative or otherwise, is not really one of my areas of interest or expertise, but within that field, this book is definitely a classic, and I pretty much agreed with every word, despite the number of DVDs and bags of potato chips in my house.

Fukuoka was a young scientist studying plant diseases, when an existential crisis led him to a liberating epiphany about the futility of human endeavors: "Humanity knows nothing at all. There is no intrinsic value in anything, and every action is a futile, meaningless effort" (4). Thought an eccentric by everyone, and after the interruption of the Second World War, Fukuoka begins to practically apply his philosophy to his chosen field of agriculture, pioneering what he calls "do-nothing" farming (15).

He jokes about how others always think that means there's no work involved, which isn't true, but his techniques are all about working with one's specific environment, and interfering as little as possible with the natural growth of crops, which, as he had realized, can flourish in the wild without any human intervention. He is constantly thinking "How about not doing this?" (ibid)

The introduction, by noted author Wendell Berry, points out that the book's specific farming techniques are designed for Fukuoka's land in Japan, and aren't directly applicable to other conditions. I won't spend much time on those, although that was more interesting than I expected. But I was most interested in the underlying framework, which was surprisingly profound. He points out that a small compromise for convenience can send one down the road to complete complicity in an unhealthy system, and commiserates with the city dwellers whose options for "natural" food are almost as unnatural as just eating the Doritos (okay, that's my example).

At heart, his message is this: "The more people do, the more society develops, the more problems arise. The increasing desolation of nature, the exhaustion of resources, the uneasiness and disintegration of the human spirit, all have been brought about by humanity's trying to accomplish something" (159). And he warns, "Human beings can destroy natural forms, but they cannot create them" (154).

Of course, we're in a modern industrial age, when generations of tampering in the name of progress can't really be unraveled. Fukuoka's vision is entirely impractical, and the vast majority of people wouldn't want to live that way even if they could. As it says in Good Omens (by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman), instead of a desire to go Back to Nature, "almost the entire drive of human history has been an attempt to get as far away from Nature as possible." Still, it's kind of hard to argue against the idea that the world is a mess, and many efforts to fix it are making more of a mess. Or that the human urge for "fast rather than slow, more rather than less" (110) has led to big problems, so maybe we could try slow over fast, and less over more.

On a less pensive note, this was a clearly-written and thought-provoking read, worth putting on anybody's book lists about food, farming, or modern industrial problems.

Fukuoka, Masanobu. The One-Straw Revolution. New York: New York Review Books, 2009.

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