By Jean English
Editor, The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener
My middle-school-age son is studying the transition of humans from nomadic hunter-gatherers to stable agrarian societies. I benefit by learning once again (or even for the first time) about events that contributed to human civilization: the discovery of metals; development of language; learning how to cultivate crops and domesticate animals; and so on. My son’s test question – to tell what contributed to a growth in human population from 5 million in 8000 BCE to 90 million in 4000 BCE – is fertile ground for thought … as fertile as the Tigris and Euphrates River valleys. The ability to produce and store more food is central to the answer, but along with that abundance came trade (not to mention defense systems for protecting accumulated goods).
My son has also been reviewing fractions, including finding least common denominators. As I reflect on some of the articles in this issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, I think that the “least common denominator” might be an appropriate term for what large, multinational corporations are seeking in workers as they take over world trade and expect farmers and sweatshop workers to produce abundant, cheap goods. As Juvelina Palma, a delegate from MOFGA’s sistering organization in El Salvador, related, “free trade” corn brought into her country from Mexico costs less than that produced by local farmers. “The only thing that will be available for us after all of these free trade agreements,” she predicted, are jobs in sweatshops. Those sweatshop workers are the fertile input that produces the multinationals’ obscene profits, like nutrients dumped on the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates. This situation shows how far we have come from being truly civilized in the 21st century.
The profit motive that began in Neolithic times now carries a heavy, toxic burden with it, as described at the teach-in on cancer and the environment at the Common Ground Country Fair. Residents in the Rumford area, for example, have higher rates of some cancers than those in other parts of Maine. Last summer I followed a pulp truck through most of northern New Hampshire and into Maine, lumbering slowly over hills and through valleys as it made its way to the MeadWestvaco paper mill in Rumford. What an inefficient way to make paper, I thought – as visions of smaller, decentralized, totally chlorine-free paper mills fed by locally-grown hemp danced in my head. After the teach-in I realized that the current way of making paper is not only inefficient but is probably quite toxic as well.
The people in the Rumford area seem to be the least common denominator on which toxic profits depend. Some of these citizens seem to be paying the highest possible price for those toxic profits.
On the other hand, many of the articles in this MOF&G highlight the highest multiples of civilization – people building on good works and helping instead of bleeding populations. The teach-in itself, especially the powerful, moving presentation by Rumford resident Terry Martin, offered motivation to be part of the change necessary to develop a truly civilized world. The Salvadoran delegates’ belief that they can develop their own free trade for the campesinos within Central American countries is another such multiple. Joyce White’s encouraging story about the Gonsalves family shows how to “be the change that you want the world to be,” as the saying goes, or “live within your harvest,” as the Gonsalves practice.
Maybe my son’s children will be taught about people like Martin, the Gonsalves and the Salvadoran delegates, folks who helped bring about a civilized balance among food, trade, profit and populations.