investment and growth; fluid mobility and uniform composition
Welcome to Digestable, your mouthful of things happening in the world.
Last week, I learned about the increasing food insecurity people are experiencing in multiple African regions. Back in 2020, around 70% of people in both West and East Africa did not have enough food to eat. Now, those numbers are even higher, against the backdrop of a long pandemic, and exacerbated by the loss of food imports from Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the US, a massive provider of foreign aid (for better and worse) is funneling billions to the war in Ukraine. It wouldn’t be good to let Putin win this one, of course—and, think of all that money, going to war. This feels similar to the calculations communities across the US made in 2020—understanding police budgets as clear redirections of public money that could be devoted to protecting and caring people.
I’ve been thinking about growth, lately. It’s spring; in Vermont, leaf season is just beginning to nudge out mud season. Everything is alive. I’m making investments of money, time, and energy into the potential that things might grow, and that I might eat them, contributing to my ability to continue to be a person.
There’s that word: investment. Alongside growth, these two find themselves in a whole panoply of places, from Wall Street to the nonprofit Zoom room; in community demands for funding; in the offices of pension managers; in the fields. What do they mean, these words that have so many homes?
Capitalism, and the logic of our world in its current form, is deeply reliant on—invested in—infinite growth. Capitalism only makes sense if you ignore the ‘one’ limiting factor: the size of the earth and the quantity of ‘resources’ on it (that can be turned into a pile of cash).
Bear with me, one step further: often, an early investment is called “seed funding.” The implication is that you’re planting a capital seed. Most seeds are hard, stable, small things. If you put them in the soil, give them water and nutrients and time and sun, they will crack open and turn into plants that bear food, sequester carbon, could be made into houses, energy, so on. They’ll also bear more seeds, to do it all again.
The capital seed is similar, but the yield is money, which is not something you can eat or sit under for relief on a sunny day. Unlike its plant equivalent, this seed is often committed to ignoring that limiting factor—the size of the earth and all the living things on it.
The capital seed forges ahead, generally unhindered; fossil-fueled drought wipes out crops, insects decimate fresh shoots, bombs level fields.
On a more conceptual level, growth pushes us towards singularism, per last week’s musings. This is the idea that if you just do something long enough, you will have grown sufficiently, you will have made your upfront investment and that will have been enough.
This idea feels like a rock on my chest. Enough? I met some people this week who have been doing their jobs at their organizations for basically ever, say a quarter century or so. The only things I’ve invested in for that long are breathing and loving my parents, which are close to the top of my list of Most Important Things. But I’ve also invested assorted time in learning new skills, building relationships with people, with place, with myself.
When the growing thing that dominates our lives is an economy designed to extinguish us, and with it a social system maintained to keep us down and in place, what is it that we do to most subvert those means of control? We recapture ownership of growth, and we put it elsewhere. We put it in our communities and in our relationships. We put it into the earth, which is so ready to receive our care and gentle attention.
One of the principles I’ve found most guiding in the realm of How To Be is a bell hooks quote: seeing “love as the will to nurture our own and another's spiritual growth.” Investment in your own growth, the growth of people around you, is a redirection of that toxic idea, that same one that finds home on Wall Street or in a nonprofit meeting.
[Friends, I am not going to write about the attack on reproductive rights this week. There is a lot being written. Please take care of yourselves and each other.]
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
Last week BBC Radio 4’s podcast Farming Today ran a story on the rising price of cooking oil, triggered by the abandonment of Ukrainian sunflower crops and wartime trade disruption. In the piece, agricultural commodity expert Dr. James Fry explains that pressures on Ukraine are only one factor in a network of events that have increased pressure on oilseeds: Indonesia, which grows 35% of the world’s palm oil, has banned exports to stabilize domestic prices; drought in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay is threatening South American soybean exports; and Canada, normally the largest canola grower, suffered a drought last year that destroyed half of Saskatchewan’s crop. This scarcity has been a boon to Irish and UK farmers whose bright yellow fields are suddenly worth a lot more, but it has also increased the financial pressures on food establishments and eaters. At first glance, cooking oil price hikes are just a tiny piece of wartime trivia, but doubling back to look closer shows just how tangled the web of global commodities gets.
A commodity is an abstraction of a good or service that can be sold. There is actual sunflower oil that came from seeds pressed in a particular factory and grown in a particular field with the aid of particular people, and then there is the commodity of sunflower oil which is undifferentiated and universal, making it easy to move around an international market. Canadian canola and Irish canola probably have some differences in taste or color, even plants in different parts of a field vary, but when their oil becomes a commodity all that variation is ignored and the determiner of value is reduced to how scarce canola is on a global scale. Certain crops like vegetables or flowers are harder to commodify given how difficult they are to move long distances and how variable and distinctive they can be. By contrast, plant oils are the ultimate commodity. As a liquid, they can be poured into shippable shapes and even piped over large distances. As a bunch of isolated plant lipids, they’re fairly interchangeable and can even be mixed together into products like your grocery store’s “vegetable oil,” a variable blend of corn, soy, canola, or sunflower oil, depending on what is cheapest at the time.
These material qualities of make vegetable oils similar to another kind of oil: petroleum, the primary commodity in the global market. Like vegetable oil, the petroleum market has been profoundly disrupted by the war in Ukraine, causing price hikes to home heating oil, gasoline, and other petroleum-based products like fertilizers. According to a Bloomberg article by Elizabeth Elkin and Samuel Grebe (thank you Travis for sending), this jump in fertilizer prices is a threat to global food security, disrupting Filipino and Kenyan rice farmers, Brazilian soy growers, and Kansas farmers that grow wheat and corn for export. Elkin and Grebe’s analysis relies on the International Rice Research Institute and the International Fertilizer Development Center, showcasing how the agricultural systems most impacted by fertilizer prices are the fossil-fuel intensive Green Revolution projects instituted in the global South by those exact institutions. The threats to farmers and eaters in these places are very real, but they are ultimately the bitter fruit of the Green Revolution’s attempt to tie “food security” in the South to petroleum profits in the North.
When the price of something goes up, like gasoline or vegetable oil, governments can pull certain levers through subsidies and tariffs to keep things affordable. Indonesia cutting palm oil exports to subdue domestic prices is one example of this, as are the Green Marshall Plan calls to export American heat pumps to Germany and releases of oil from strategic reserves. But as with fertilizer, global commodities are often tied to one another by industrial processes. Governments could pull the fertilizer lever to bring down vegetable oil prices, urging farmers to intensify production to grow more canola, but while petroleum is driving fertilizer prices up that fertilizer comes at significant cost to the farm, resulting in still higher crop prices.
The Biden administration is currently trying this kind of leverage to lower gas prices by investing in biofuels. Biden’s EPA has waived regulations on the use of ethanol in summer, regulations intended to limit ethanol’s tendency to create smog, and the USDA is giving cash to ethanol and biodiesel producers to expand infrastructure. On the surface this sounds like a win-win, reducing fuel prices by switching out petroleum for friendly carbon-sucking plants. But these commodities are closely connected: biofuel production relies on the intensive production of crops like corn and soy, intensive agriculture relies on heavy fertilizer inputs, and those fertilizer inputs rely on a steady and abundant supply of petroleum. It's a feedback loop that converts energy to profit with every intermediate processing step; an effective way to concentrate profits when commodities are abundant but a poison pill when used as an attempt to address scarcity.
To recap: war in Ukraine has made everything from sunflower oil to fertilizer to gasoline more expensive and governments can’t solve it through market manipulation because all these things are tied together by petroleum, which is also more expensive. But beneath the wasteful cycles of fossil industry and the abstraction of commodities there is a tangible material reality: plants and soil and air and human bodies. With canola or corn oil commodified as they are, giving them emotional and cultural weight feels awkward but these complex fats are what build your body and supply its energy. Plant lipids form the very base of virtually any dish, before the garlic and onion, before salt and pepper. When soybean oil is converted to biodiesel as Biden would have it, that food is removed from the ecological cycle of soil ➡️ plant ➡️ animal ➡️ soil to an industrial cycle of extraction ➡️ exchange ➡️ combustion ➡️ emission.
The base of the globalized economy today is also oil. Petroleum, its extraction, and its consumption ultimately drive prices, production, scarcity, and inflation. But in the midst of this climate catastrophe we can see that petroleum disrupts its own attempt at infinite growth. Petroleum creates the climate that causes the North & South American droughts currently derailing agricultural commodity production. The cycle of fossil industry doesn’t spiral infinitely upwards; it gets in its own way, feeds back, and crashes. Thankfully, our global dependence on petroleum is a fiction. Our bodies don’t need to accumulate profit to survive—we need to eat. And before Green Revolution boosters broke the Brazilian cerrado for soybeans and burned Indonesian rainforest for oil palm there were other cycles, positive feedbacks and ways of growing food and abundance that didn’t rely on strategic stocks of fossil energy. Those ways are still there, in memory and in the relationships we see between plants and animals and air and soil.