Outrage for Dummies
A review of The Triumph of Technique: the Industrialization of Agriculture and the Destruction of Rural America, by Robert Wolf
Robert Wolf has written a punchy, passionate, and philosophical book about the demise of farming and rural life that will put the hand wringers to shame and may just wake a few complacent types from their slumber.
Wolf is a peripatetic chronicler of the American soul; a renaissance man who paints and writes and philosophizes in the tradition of Plato and Bronson Alcott. He has traveled the country on freight trains, written books on Jazz, edited and published writings by homeless people and Midwestern farmers, and written a half dozen plays. He was once a columnist for the Chicago tribune and is now living in Iowa and married to one of the great folk singers of this country, Bonnie Koloc.
Wolf brings all this and more to his short treatise on agriculture, filling it with the kind of intelligent, well crafted fury that used to characterize an informed, independent minded and engaged American public. The book weaves together in an irregular but ultimately satisfying fashion three main threads or themes.
On the one hand, the book is a very personal account of Wolf¹s confrontation with the shadow side of modern agriculture, when he and his wife moved to a pristine spot in the driftless region of the northeast Iowa countryside, only to confront the reality of huge corporate hog factory being put in down the road. Wolf became party to the legal battle with the farmer responsible and so learned over the years the nitty, gritty, ins and outs of how Iowa politicians and farm groups worked to make this spoiling of the Iowa countryside legal, in the name of keeping Iowa the nation¹s #1 hog producing state. This is the most strident part of the book, but also the most personal and human, providing a wonderful counter point to the more historical and philosophical themes in the book.
The second thread is indeed historical and fascinating history at that. Starting with Jefferson and Hamilton, Wolf chronicles the ongoing tension over the decades between America¹s agrarian origins and ideals and its growing urban, industrial realities. Arriving at the 1950’s, for example, Wolf shows how the steady and dramatic decline of farmers was in large part the result of carefully planned economic policies, which had the intent to drive farmers into urban areas where they could become a source of cheap labor for America¹s factories. The historical context Wolf provides puts the plight of the American farmer today in a very different light, a light that forces one to step back and reflect more deeply on a historical trajectory that neither popular uprisings nor enlightened farm programs nor niche markets have yet been able to change.
It is this invitation to a deeper, philosophical reflection that lies at the heart of the book, which gives the book its title, and which makes it unique among efforts of its kind. For Wolf, the ultimate source of America¹s decline in farmers and rural life, lay not simply in the play of power politics or economic upheavals, but rather in the steady loss within western culture of an all encompassing “worldview,” that is, an image of the universe, of society, of the human being and of nature that gives meaning to our lives and direction to our actions. The history of this loss of creative, moral imagination is the most interesting part of this book, partly because Wolf manages to make this erudite topic so tangible and accessible. Wolf shows how the loss in the West of a feeling for the transcendent, for the higher reality of thoughts and ideals has lead to a growing emphasis on rationality and reductionism, and eventually to the triumph of what he calls technique, which Wolf characterizes as a kind of modern all consuming idol of efficiency:
“Let us distinguish between techniques and technique itself. Techniques are tools and methodologies; technique proceeds them. It is an idea. Techniques are its offspring.
Technique is never satisfied with its children. It must always create new techniques to supersede the old. Its criterion is efficiency. Technique, for example, is not satisfied with a human hand and a pen. It demands a typewriter, the world processor, the photocopier, the fax machine.
Once the machine with its regularity became regarded as the model for all human activity, man began to transform his institutions and activities into machines. Technique leaves no room for chance, for human impulse, for iosyncratic behavior. It wishes to expunge the human presence for the world.
To achieve this ascendance, technique needed philosophical materialism, the doctrine which maintains that all that exists is composed of matter.”
Wolf then goes on to show the insidiousness of this thinking within the contemporary world of business, politics and agriculture, portraying the genetic engineering of life forms as the most recent and most dangerous of the offspring of technique.
The beauty of this critique is the perspective it brings, suddenly the plight of the American family farmer and rural community appears against a backdrop of almost cosmic proportions, in which western culture is fighting for the very life of its soul. Such a perspective can bring new insights that awaken courage and enthusiasm. The problem with this critique is that, at least in Bob Wolf’s eyes, technique appears to be the victor in this battle, a perspective which can awaken bitterness and anger, a certain amount of which is peppered throughout this book. In other words, the book is long on diagnosis but short on cure. And yet Wolf would argue that the rush for solutions, before really understanding the problem, is part and parcel of the problem of technique.
I suspect readers will find this perspective on modern agriculture either refreshing or disturbing or both. I must confess that Robert Wolf is more a pessimist than I. Where he sees the dark and impenetrable shadows of corporate take over, I see, as well, emerging flecks of light, for example in the creative, practical idealism of the organic and sustainable agriculture movement. The soulless, manipulative culture of technique appears to be giving birth, albeit very slowly, to a new consciousness of the spirit and the values that flow from the spirit. But this new movement is precarious, surrounded and influenced as is it by the modern god of technique, and this book is a good reminder of all that we are up against and the time it may take to bring about a change.
One of the most remarkable thing about The Triumph of Technique, is how all this perspective has been captured in a sparse 120 pages. This book has conscience and courage and depth, but it is also short, accessible, and to the point. This is no 400 page academic argument for a 10% reduction in pesticide use, nor a long winded new age treatise on the loss of matriarchal cultures. The book could and should be read by every college student entering an agriculture related line of study. It can be read in a day if you try. Call it “Outrage for Dummies.”
Reviewed by Robert Karp.
Karp is the Executive director of The Biodynamic Association of North America