The Village Mirror

Hongyi peasant farm growing food with agroecological methods. Jiang Family Village, Pingyi County, Linyi City, Shandong Province, China. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos.

The world was a gigantic village for most of recorded history.[1] Villagers, rural people, peasants, domesticated wild crops, fruits, and vegetables, the food we eat today. They domesticated farm animals like the horse, donkey, mule, buffalo, oxen, cows, sheep, goats, chicken, dogs and cats. In addition, they formed the first political communities, villages and poleis (city-states), that shaped civilization.

Rural Hellas

In ancient Hellas — Greece — peasants, persons of the land, not philosophers, discovered democracy. Xenophon, student of Socrates, historian, and general, said farming was a school for training soldiers and patriots for defending the country. He had no doubt that agriculture and rural people formed civilization.

The Greeks thought of the gods as forces in the natural world. Epic poets like Homer and Hesiod described the myths on the birth and nature of the gods.

The greatest of those gods were peasant gods: Zeus, god of rain and thunder, protected the rural household and foreigners visiting Hellas. His son, Dionysos, invented the grapes and wine. His daughter, Athena, gifted the olive tree to the Athenians who named their polis after her, Athens.

Pan was the god of flocks and wild countryside. Aristaios was the god of beekeeping, cheesemaking, shepherding, and olive-growing. Demeter, sister of Zeus, was the goddess of wheat, agriculture and rural life. Artemis, daughter of Zeus, protected the natural world. Poseidon, brother of Zeus, was the god of the seas. Major rivers were gods. The stars in the sky were gods.

The greatest festivals of the Greeks celebrated their rural gods, wild nature, the growing of food, harvest, and rural life.

Rural China

China, like Hellas, had a sacred natural world, a flourishing village culture and society for millennia. The rural character of China shaped its farming and civilization.

The modern upheaval

The countryside of China as well as the countryside of other societies was far from being conducive to the flourishing of human beings. Landowners saw to that. The dark ages in the West, wrecked all ancient institutions, replacing them with tyrannies, savagery, and widespread slavery.

In late eighteenth century, the Swiss banker and minister of finance for the French King Louis XVI, Jacques Necker, explained the jungle of violence between landlords and peasants.

Landlords were tyrants who treated rural people like enemies and wild animals. They thought the Earth was theirs. They divided it among themselves and set permanent military camps against everybody else.

The landowners of England appropriated the land of the peasants, whom they enslaved or shipped to their American colonies.

In late nineteenth century, the great writer and reformer, Leo Tolstoy of Russia, freed his own peasants, and denounced the institutions of oppression and slavery of rural people.

In the twentieth century or so, this class violence expanded in most rural societies to cover the remaining parts of the planet. Many landowners joined the urban modernizing and industrializing elites. They took away rural land for factories, highways, cities, and oligarchic plantations for the production of factory food and meat.

In his Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, American writer in the twentieth century, painted a grim picture of the dust bowl agricultural practices of the 1930s, including the exploitation of family farmers and farm workers by the emerging large landowners.

Few people took the critics seriously. The urban paradigm has been unstoppable. The resulting metamorphosis of the living, if violent, rural world into a city and factory landscape, has institutionalized even more violence than the countryside. The urban world has become a battlefield of countless wars, domestic conflicts, apathetic people, bad food, contaminated water, and chaotic climate change threatening the planet and all life.

Climate chaos

The official briefing on the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (August 9, 2021), warned policy makers that climate chaos is affecting all regions of the planet. Its origins are unequivocally anthropogenic. Most countries are experiencing rising temperatures, heat waves, destructive fires, flooding, drought, and those harboring seas, rising sea levels.

China is fortunate because it still has more than 200 million peasant farmers moderating to a significant degree the climate danger. Western Europe and North America have very few villages, with the result climate change is very violent.

Chinese peasants have knowledge and methods of raising food that resist the adverse effects of a warmer planet. They are China’s ace against the climate tsunami. In addition, they are producing most of China’s food and culture

Support rural people

Revitalizing the villagers of China and those of the rest of the world should be the highest priority of all nations and international organizations fighting for a better and more peaceful and livable world. This is of the outmost importance now that the planet, humans, and all life are suffering from the debilitating and deadly effects of the pandemic.

Rural people need more land and the end of industrialized farming, a prime engine for ecocide, including rising global temperatures and making people sick.

From 18 to 51 percent of greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change enter the atmosphere daily from animal farms and plantations of industrial crop monoculture, including deforestation for growing more industrial crops.

Ecocide

Industrial plantations are also responsible for the poisoning of the planet and the decimation of animals and plants. About a million species are on the verge of extinction.

In 1974, a University of Wisconsin botanist, Hugh H. Iltis, warned of the dangers of high tech agriculture to the survival of plants necessary for human food. He was against the spreading of tractors, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and selected crops to the tropics. He was convinced we had to freeze the genetic landscape. No more agribusiness or development ventures in ecologically sensitive regions of the planet. That way, he said, the evolution of wild plants would continue, assuring diversity in cultivated plants and wild species of plants and animals. He urged subsidizing “primitive agricultural systems.” In addition, he said:

“Only by the deliberate and permanent preservation of selected specific local genetic landscapes, scientifically justified, politically negotiated, and perhaps internationally subsidized, and by the deliberate exclusion of agricultural “improvements” as represented by the “Green Revolution” and modern agricultural technology, is there any hope for long-range success in continuing the evolution of our crops…. Only by the rigid protection of specific, primitive regional genetic landscapes will man be able to preserve the vast array of potentially valuable…[crops] and give crop breeding a solid future” (Department of Botany, University of Illinois, Maize Genetics Cooperation News Letter, 1974).

Certainly, policy makers, land grant university professors, and conventional farmers did not hear the voice of reason or learned from the science and wisdom of Iltis.

A dreadful die-off of gray whales in the Pacific Ocean is a harbinger of the continuing deadly human impacts on seas and land.

That has to stop because humanity is doomed without a healthy natural world. Biodiversity is as crucial as fresh clean drinking water.

The power of revitalization

That’s why revitalizing the village and listening to the wisdom of villagers is so timely and necessary. Villagers know how to grow healthy food without the toxins that kill pollinators, beneficial insects, and life in the air, water, and land. They work with the natural world, protecting biodiversity, preserving seeds, and rural traditions and culture.

I urge China to focus on the needs of its villagers. Stop demolishing villages for skyscrapers and factories. In her riveting book, China in One Village, Liang Hong, professor of Chinese literature at Renmin University in Beijing, talks about the vanishing of familiar trees, creeks, and rivers behind villages. “Our villages,” she says, “are increasingly deserted, many left almost in ruins.”

I urge China to reverse that destruction. Instead, it should encourage, learn, and reward the contributions of the villagers to ecological civilization. A healthy rural China is a brake to climate chaos and a step in the right direction for China and other countries.

We must reorganize the world on the fundamental principles of science, traditional civilization, common interests, and humility.

Plato said the Earth was the oldest of the gods. Chinese philosophers thought of the Earth in similar terms. Traditional people consider the Earth sacred. The Earth, nature, is our common mother. We need to respect and protect her.

Empower rural people to keep growing healthy food without pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, and genetic engineering. The government should put out of business oppressive land monopolies and hazardous industrialized food production factories.

Agricultural universities should merge the tested agrarian food knowledge and wisdom of the peasants with advancements in agricultural ecology. The new paradigm, agroecology, is the science of ecological civilization.

Rural people should also be empowered to protect forests and wildlife.

Moreover, China and the United States must resolve their political differences. Work together to shed light on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. No more Cold Wars. Only then they will confront the climate threat together.

Start this cooperation by ordering Brazil to stop destroying the Amazon, the planet’s largest rain forest. Stop importing animal feed, meat, and wood from Brazil. Shut down any Brazilian meat companies operating in China and the US. Use international law to end the gigantic global ecocide and human rights violations taking place in the Amazon.

Acting as one, the US and China, must phase out fossil fuels no later than 2030 and embark on a massive embrace of clean energy technologies from the Sun and wind. Solar power is incomparable. The Sun is forever.

The paradigm of US-China cooperation will bring the other nations to a united global front to save the planet and civilization.

We should be proud to look ourselves in the village mirror. Its modest proposals have the potential of bringing about a desired revitalization of rural China and rural societies all over the world.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

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