Sunday, May 30, 2010

Freedom from Kitchens

Gastronomy and Common Kitchens

By John Taylor; 2010 May 30, Azamat 12, 167 BE

I believe that homes should not have kitchens.

While I have been arguing that we need more exposure to agriculture in general, I would argue the reverse for exposure to food itself. We need to keep it out of view until it is on the table, ready to eat. Instead of every home having a kitchen and expecting that every homemaker prepare meals, why not offload the task to the neighbourhood level? What we call gluttony and sloth often are not personal failings as much as laxity in planning, a structural lack of order and discipline in the social environment.

Food preparation, then, should take place only in larger kitchens in separate locations, where economies of scale can reduce waste, lower costs and where materials are handled safely. A larger facility can train its workers in correct procedures and has the space to import, store and freeze foodstuffs in bulk. It has the financial wherewithal to purchase the latest equipment to, for example, protect against exposure to pollutants.

Waste, for example, is a major flaw in our present food distribution system. Studies conducted in Sweden found that a great proportion of the fresh vegetables purchased by households are not eaten. They rot in the refrigerator, even in well-organized homes run by competent homemakers. And not all homes are organized or diligently run. One study reported by Science News found that the pleasant, aromatic smell of a home cooked meal is actually a witch's brew of volatile organic compounds that can seriously compromise health. Ordinary home cooking can emit "easily inhaled pollutants that travel throughout a home and can linger for hours." (Science News, "Inhaling your food--and its cooking fuel," <>) While food preparation in a factory is more efficient in some ways, in other ways they are extremely wasteful, for example in packaging. Broad studies found that waste seems to be built into the very structure of the economy.

"There are reports of rich countries throwing out 25-30% of what is bought. Add in what never even makes it to the cupboard or the refrigerator, and the scale of the problem is considerably larger. [the study found that] ... the average American wastes 1,400 kilocalories a day. That amounts to 150 trillion kilocalories a year for the country as a whole -- about 40% of its food supply, up from 28% in 1974. Producing these wasted calories accounts for more than one-quarter of America's consumption of freshwater, and also uses about 300m barrels of oil a year. On top of that, a lot of methane (a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) emerges when all this food rots." (A hill of beans; America's food-waste problem is getting worse," The Economist, Nov 28, 2009, p. 94)

By segregating food preparation in a large community kitchen or restaurant we protect against dangerous practices, not least of which are raids by residents on the pantry or refrigerator. Having food too ready to hand is by all accounts unwise. Dietary research has found that a major cause of the recent epidemic of obesity is that it has become socially acceptable to eat and drink anywhere, anytime. Children from the earliest age are allowed to snack freely, to wolf down salty confections and slug sugar drinks, even at study sessions in school. We should be as tolerant of snacking as we are of bathroom functions performed in public -- and for the same reasons, since overindulging in food will kill just as surely as contact with excrement. Obesity may take longer than a communicable disease, but it kills just as dead. So, let us especially avoid anything that leads to overeating, or eating too quickly, especially buffets and smorgasbords, and tax salt and sugar to the hilt. We can use both social pressure and the design of our buildings to keep temptations to eat out of our faces most of the time.

In a hillside block the freedom to stuff oneself is severely limited. Large food preparation facilities prepare adequate meals and distribute them to households at mealtimes, and only at mealtimes. They can use pneumatic tubes and dumb waiters built into the superstructure of the building to deliver hot meals to dinner tables just at the time they are needed.


The abolition of home kitchens has proved to be the least popular of my ideas for hillside construction. For instance, in response to earlier versions of this essay, one reader recently wrote:

"I do not want to eat in a sort of cafeteria type surrounding.  I like to cook my own choice of food - and eat it when I want to eat it. I am saying this because I think it would be helpful for you to get some feedback."

The love of good food is both a basic human need and a fundamental part of happiness and the good life. I have described a negative aspect of the design, the lack of kitchens in hillside homes. The saying, "hunger is the best seasoning," describes the wisdom of this. The French call it gastronomy, eating small portions in a highly social setting. The hillside block building is designed from the ground up for gastronomy.

This comment brings up two issues that I should deal with in order.

First of all, choice. Although delivery takes place quickly and with great efficiency, this does not mean that everybody eats the same thing at every meal. With the aid of computers and "smart cards," residents can plan and personalize their own meals to their own tastes and medical requirements. Indeed the nutritional smart card will soon allow persons with restricted diets to eat anywhere, and to know exactly what they ate, when, and how much it cost. Such advances are happening without hillside housing, but they are slow in coming. As always they are not quickly adopted because standards must be agreed upon and interests other than those of the health of the public are liable to be accommodated first.

Second, participation in food preparation. The fact that cooking takes place off-site does not mean that residents are forbidden to cook. Many kitchens will be cooperatives that encourage work for meals bartering and other kinds of volunteer service arrangements.

The principle of conformity in essentials and variety in non-essentials would demand that there be variety not only in the types of food we eat but also in the specialization of the process of preparing it as well. Some households in natural areas may want to involve themselves both in cooking and in growing, as subsistence farmers and hunter gatherer aboriginals have always done.

There may be only a few households who choose a lifestyle with such radical non-specialization. However, it is in everybody's interest that they always continue, there every region have at least some available so that anybody who feels ready for a change can visit such a communal household. A vacation there would provide experience with a simpler, more traditional lifestyle that will reorient a city dweller's outlook on life.

All I can do here is to describe the default. The beauty of the cosmopolitan condition is that it will encourage a wide variety of lifestyles, diets and techniques for daily living. The hillside project just assures that most residents get enough, but not too much, nutrition at meal hours. Other aspects of the design of these buildings will encourage people to eat meals with others, together in their own households.

The social and spiritual utility of meals is not to be underestimated.

Mealtime is a chance for family or group members to share information, be they young or old. It rounds out the day and gives a family the chance to deal with problems and plan their lives. This offers further benefit for health, since the hubbub and distraction of group meals encourages slow eating, which allows the body to feel satiated before the stomach is full.

So far we have considered what the contribution of block kitchens is not.

A large hillside block building housing hundreds of residents and dozens of households would have many specialized kitchens competing with one another to send a meal to a resident or to cater an entire household's next meal. Within the bounds of proper nutrition, kitchens would be free to specialize. Some kitchens might choose an ethnic specialty. The Chinese are already adept at this. The level playing field of a hillside block would encourage other minority groups adapt their own cooking to compete with Chinese food. Some kitchens might be cooperatives with many residents participating; others might be corporations, family businesses or the showpiece of a school or ethnic neighbourhood.
Smaller or rural hillside blocks might have a single cooperative kitchen, perhaps one using large parabolic solar collectors or solar ovens in order to cook without using electric power. Residents who need more variation in their diets could supplement these dishes with ingredients, servings or whole meals sent in insulated containers from kitchens in larger hillside blocks. This would still be economical since the pneumatic tubes built into these buildings sends food very rapidly.

The hillside kitchen system not only offers variety of choice for the residents sitting at the top of the food chain, it also bolsters the farmers at the bottom. They have an assured local market for their harvest, and a ready demand for even exotic plants, fruits and meats. Since grower, cook and most of the dining clientele are all neighbours, there is bound to be great concern on everybody's part for safety, waste-avoidance, quality and promptitude.


Friday, May 28, 2010

Green Hillsides


Ubiquitous Agriculture

Food Security and Recreation in the Cosmopolitan Neighbourhood

By John Taylor; 2010 May 28, Azamat 10, 167 BE

As we have seen, the sun-facing slope of hillside block construction projects is devoted mostly to gardens and greenhouses. Since hillside projects house hundreds of people, it probably would be impractical for even the most intensely cultivated hillside to attempt to provide complete subsistence.

Greenies on the Hillsides

Instead these terraced fields, gardens and greenhouses would concentrate on supplementing the local diet, supplying perishable foodstuffs and crops that are difficult to pack or transport. These include tomatoes, lettuce, herbs, celery, cucumbers, and other "greenies" -- this is the familiar term used at the Scott-Amundston research station at the South Pole. There, in consultation with NASA, researchers are exploring scientific ways of supplementing their diet with locally grown greens. The lessons learned at remote locations where everything has to be flown in will be applied around the world through the World Belt and the hillside housing developments that arise out of it.

Security in a Hillside Agronomy

With farming going on so close by, many improvements would be possible, not least of which is to security.

Hillside developments are designed so that even in urban settings they will be semi-independent in food. Having gardens and greenhouse literally on their backside, they are assured of a constant, ready food supply to fall back on in emergencies. In the event of a breakdown in transportation, crop failure or even bio-terror, food interruptions, much less mass famine, would be easily staved off. A disaster in one part of a city would not cripple other parts, since each neighbourhood can adjust resiliently by growing more or different crops, or by taking different routes to nearby farms.

The green slope of a hillside block project provides basic foodstuffs to kitchens situated a few metres away, and from there to dinner tables also separated by mere metres rather than kilometres. This short journey from ground to fork protects public health by permitting close, comprehensive inspections by professionals and the public alike at every stage of food production. A short production cycle can be monitored, from crop to compost, not only by experts but also under the supervision of casual passers-by, what Jane Jacobs called the "eyes on the street" system of security.

By reducing distances so radically, food will not only be fresher and more healthful, far less can go wrong on the trip. Every bite that residents take can be easily traced to its source in a nearby operation. This contrasts sharply with the thousands of miles our food presently travels, the admixture it undergoes in closed factories using proprietary recipes with unknown chemicals and additives.

This plan is very different from proposed "vertical farms" currently being researched and implemented for urban agriculture. Although as a form of urbiculture it seems superficially similar, these large skyscrapers will be designed to grow food in ways that are closer to the present model of agriculture than the hillsides of a cosmopolitan order. Filled with hydroponic monoculture crops, the whole process of food preparation is permanently shut away from public view by walls, albeit glass ones.

Vertical farms are run for private profit by large agribusiness corporations. Hillside projects are agrarian socially, and economically are designed to involve almost everybody in growing and preparing food. Most importantly, as locally owned cooperatives, everybody in a hillside block by right shares in the profits of the agricultural activities they perform.

Advantages of a Local Diet

In most developed countries the number of farmers in the population has dropped below five percent. Like our democratic system, the work is specialized and involvement by the public minimized. The agricultural system puts quantity before quality and encourages passive, ignorant consumers. In spite of this, most people are becoming aware that this system is not sustainable. They agree that it is desirable to become what is now being called a "locavore," someone who eats food that is grown as close to the point of consumption as possible. We know that locally-grown produce is not only fresher, cheaper and more nutritious than imported foodstuffs, it is also inherently easier on the environment, since the trains, planes, trucks and boats carrying food around the world burn fossil fuels.

The residents of hillside projects are locavores by default. The local economy is designed to make it difficult, though not impossible, to do otherwise. Only a conscious decision to go out of their way to buy imported food and a willingness to pay a great deal more for it would keep someone from eating local food, if not from the same building, then from the nearest available farm.

Ubiquitous agriculture also contributes to diversity and robustness in a localized economy. Even a specialized district, such as one with a large hospital or university, will still be balanced by a large number of farmers, cooks and other artisans in the local population. This will act as democratic ballast, the effects of which we will discuss in the section on democracy.

Hillside Recreation

The main purpose of the hillside farms, orchards and gardens is the utilitarian one of feeding residents and guests as efficiently as possible. But that is not to say that the agricultural sector will be without recreational value for residents. It will be a convenient place for residents to take short strolls and climbs during the day. Slides and water slides down the slope would add excitement for young and old. In recognition of this, flower gardens will be planted in conspicuous places, since walks in natural areas tend to lower stress and bolster the mental health of visitors.

Next time, let us look closer at eating, food preparation and the kitchen facilities of a hillside development.


Thursday, May 27, 2010

Spirit Level

An important study of the importance of equality. Recall that Abdu'l-Baha called equality before the law a Baha'i principle in Paris. Here is why it is so essential to a divine order.

Consultative Housing

Consultative Housing 
(revised from yesterday's essay)

By John Taylor; 2010 May 27, Azamat 09, 167 BE

This section of People Without Borders deals with the physical infrastructure of the cosmopolitan condition. We have described the hillside blocks, wherein individuals orbit households, households orbit blocks, and blocks orbit neighbourhood government. Many invisible, mental factors and agreements among many groups, rather than any pre-existing plan, will decide where people and buildings are placed in relation to one another. Since the specific position of any building or institution at any given time is determined wholly by consultation, let us use the term "consultative housing" to describe the whole, shifting system. Consultative housing by definition is both an outcome of and is wholly integrated with the social, religious and political factors that we will deal with later.

Mixed Use Zoning, the Core of Consultative Housing

Consultative housing starts with an old idea that city planning specialists call "mixed use zoning," which simply means that homes are always built as close as possible to where people spend most of their time, both working and playing. Mixed use zoning is Occam's Razor applied to daily living and travel. Why have a long commute when you can live close by? If there is a choice between making your own entertainment in the home and travelling for it, the former is preferable.

A city that allows homes and other human support facilities to mix freely with the workplace allows urbanites to move where it is most convenient and efficient. This permits the economies of scale from high-density construction while encouraging the sense of community and civic responsibility most often associated with village life. A product of long evolution, mixed use zoning was the default in the most successful neighbourhoods of great cities until the Twentieth Century.

With industrialization, noisy machines and smoky factories made it ever more unpleasant to live or walk anywhere near the workplace. Gradually, mixed-use zoning was abandoned. As factories were built as far as possible from residential districts. As a result, they became effectively invisible. The most active and influential people were far removed from smog, dirt and smokestacks. The poor had no choice or say in matters. Restraints on industry were released and they became even more noisy and polluting.

Technical advances, especially in transportation, combined with lobbying by special interests, persuaded planners to make room for trucks and automobiles. Mixed zoning seemed obsolete. Cheap oil meant that total dependence on cars for the most common daily errands did not seem to be a problem. Power politics became dominated by petroleum. A monopoly on energy and transportation concentrated wealth into ever fewer hands.

The original rationale for specialized neighbourhoods was purely technical. For a long time, the technology of travel seemed to be accelerating without limit. It was evident from the beginning that the invention of fast, mechanized transport, air, rail and road, was bound to separate homes from factories. For example, a recent article assessing H.G. Wells predictions made over a century before for the year 2000 in his 1902 book, "Anticipations," notes that,

"The increasing speed and availability of travel, together with greater use of mail services and the telephone, will -- Wells says in the second chapter -- lead to a great expansion in the size of cities, along with a decrease in average density; in a word, suburbs. City centers will increasingly serve as shopping and entertainment areas rather than housing dense populations. One of the locations of the giant city-suburb complexes he foresees by the year 2000 is now the site of the Boston-Washington megalopolis. There will be a tendency toward thematic housing districts and home architecture ... He also forecasts suburban home offices, the segregation of neighborhoods based on wealth and race..." ("Anticipations: the remarkable forecasts of H.G. Wells," The Futurist, 01-SEP-07, <>)

That Wells did not disapprove of this anticipated lowering of urban density, which we now call urban sprawl, is evidenced in his 1923 utopian fantasy "Men Like Gods." Here an alternate earth retains a population of less than a billion people. In an avid search to maximize elbow room, they have spread out to cover all habitable territory with as few people as possible.

Today, separatism of neighbourhood functions has been taken to the ultimate extreme. The heavy manufacturing district has been shunted off to China and a handful of other Far East nations. Nonetheless, the trend away from mixed use zoning has not abated.

Yet even with heavy industry removed from the picture, specialized commercial districts, dedicated shopping malls and separate suburbs for residential construction continue to be built entirely separated from one another, connected only by roads. Trucks and automobiles crowd the highways, billions of worker hours are wasted in rush hour traffic jams, and every trip drains money from people's pockets into the petroleum monopoly. Meanwhile, our very bodies seem obsolete. Forced to drive everywhere, obesity has become epidemic among the poor as well as the rich.

The overall result is a grossly inefficient economy and infrastructure. We routinely waste food, energy, water, materials and resources, while houses, buildings and transport churn out prodigious quantities of soot and gases. The sea journey that manufactured goods take from source of extraction to China and then to destinations around the world makes waste and pollution even worse. The cheapest, dirtiest oil is used by transport vessels, since there are no residents to complain about the cloud of smoke that obscures sea lanes. The entire economy would all collapse under its own weight were it not for artificial subsidies. Without such props it would be prohibitively expensive to live, work and travel.


There is no evidence that any of this was inevitable; it could have been planned for. With a determined will, the new technology could just as easily have decentralized the economy, accelerated the growth of handicrafts and cottage industries and encouraged active, healthy lifestyles. Instead, it was most convenient to drift, to rely on habit, to feed the centralizing inclinations of a wealthy and powerful elite.

No matter how advanced technology seems to progress, the laws of the universe, especially of the moral universe, do not change. Under actual economic conditions it is always more economical to live near the workplace and to walk our commutes, rather than ride, drive or take a public conveyance. Even if cost were not a factor, walking will always be among the best exercises. For the very young and very old, it is often the only form of exercise. Walking should be integrated into all practical activities of daily life.

Mixed-use, high density construction is designed to do that. Unlike the spacious, homogenized utopia described in Wells' "Men Like Gods," we need to introduce as much variety and diversity as possible. Hillside housing, by standardizing the essentials, will allow residents to maximize this principle of conscious variance in non-essentials.

For example, hillside receptacles for ROO's will provide adequate, standard shelter for all. The sunny side of hillside blocks will grow sufficient food to cover some staples, and especially herbs, nuts, fruits and leafy vegetables, for the diet of local residents. Local workshops will run a cottage industry using traditional tools and the latest innovations, such as three-dimensional printers, will produce every kind of manufactured need, including clothing. Thus local facilities and craftspersons will provide the essential without any need to transport goods out of the neighbourhood.

While the infrastructure covers essential survival, non-essentials can be left to the creativity of local workers. They will take risks and labour to establish exports and attract visitors, both of which require a degree of specialization. However unlike "cash crops" in agriculture or "export commodities" in industry, there will never be complete dependence upon the outside market.

As with unity in diversity in the human condition, so it will be with the natural environment. We have already described how this search for variety would affect the plants, animals and the landscape in and around hillside developments.

Terra-forming operations can quickly create hilly ground in order to increase solar exposure and promote biodiversity. However, unity in diversity requires that hilly land alternate with flat lands, and that agricultural land alternate with semi-cultivated land, and that into virgin forests and other natural areas. Seen from the window of a train moving along a hillside housing complex, cultivated and uncultivated spaces would switch back and forth in quick order.

Beyond this, I think it would be impossible to say what hillside developments would look like, or what specific design principles will come out of the construction of the World Belt. The World Belt will span the continents and criss-cross the deserts providing a tremendous amount of practical experience living in mixed zoning and consultative housing. Many experiments will examine the many mixes and arrangements possible within such a neighbourhood. In an evolutionary progression, those arrangements that best maximize human potential will tend to be selected over others. Eventually, the experience moving modular units around in the high density, low-environmental-impact setting of consultative housing will be applied to all urban areas.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010



Invictus, A Movie Review

By John Taylor; 2010 May 25

I recently watched "Invictus," a movie about how the newly elected head of state brought the races together by inspiring the national team to win the Rugby World Cup (http://en.wikipedia/Invictus_(film). In my opinion this is a great film, one of the best ever done. I have been inspired to go back and watch other products of Clint Eastwood's direction that I missed, such as "A Perfect World." Invictus is a better film than the recent blockbuster, Avatar, though not as important. Why? Not because the latter made more money but because of the unique role that Avatar is playing in uniting aboriginal peoples around the world in their own cause.

Normally, barriers of distance, language and culture block them from discerning their own common plight. Anyway, although I was in tears throughout most of Invictus, at times my tears were for the human race itself. What a terrible disadvantage a world government has against nations, who can unite in a sports event in rooting for their own against another nation's gladiators. How can a world government compete against that? Maybe it will someday, if another race or races of intelligent aliens are discovered. Maybe there will be a Galactic Rugby Cup that will unite humans in a common cause someday against a formidable alien rugby team. Whether that would be a good thing, I cannot say. My tears were for the fact that we have no hope to be inspired, it seems, by anything less. Our inspiration slams against borders like invisible force fields.

On the other hand, I am not from South Africa, nor am I Afrikaans or Black, yet I was inspired by the movie. Especially by Nelson Mandela's ability to include both former rivals in a common cause, rugby. This truly was a stroke of management genius. The movie is correct to focus on Mandela's long time in prison. It prepared him to see what none other saw, and it inspired the players to put out the ultimate effort in winning against a "dream team" from New Zealand. It also shows the power of the word, how that "captain of my soul" poem inspired Mandela, and then kept the players going through thick and thin.

In a word, I was inspired by the ability of the right leader at the right time to inspire in a right cause.

This is the sort of indirect inspirational leadership that the UHJ seems want us to be aiming at by applying the Ruhi program. We do not dazzle people with revival meetings or scripture thumping speakers, we take them in and involve them in our core activities, and thereby they enter orbit. As the House said in their latest message,

"Whether the first contact with such newly found friends elicits an invitation for them to enrol in the Baha'i community or to participate in one of its activities is not an overwhelming concern. More important is that every soul feel welcome to join the community in contributing to the betterment of society, commencing a path of service to humanity on which, at the outset or further along, formal enrolment can occur." (UHJ Ridvan Message, 2010, para 4)

The Ruhi program takes an end run around our normal ways of human learning, which are slow and clumsy, and exposes us to the Word Itself. It takes us down the primrose path of faith, and from faith we derive the universal patriotism that the world needs most right now. As Baha'u'llah wrote,

"The understanding of His words and the comprehension of the utterances of the Birds of Heaven are in no wise dependent upon human learning. They depend solely upon purity of heart, chastity of soul, and freedom of spirit. This is evidenced by those who, today, though without a single letter of the accepted standards of learning, are occupying the loftiest seats of knowledge; and the garden of their hearts is adorned, through the showers of divine grace, with the roses of wisdom and the tulips of understanding. Well is it with the sincere in heart for their share of the light of a mighty Day!" (Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 210-211)


Monday, May 24, 2010




Wisdom As Leviathan

By John Taylor; 2010 May 24, Azamat 06, 167 BE

In this series we have considered wisdom as Sophia, God as feminine, nurturing and loving. However, the wisdom of God is also masculine in the sense that can beget or father new things. It is creative because it uses know-how to build up something new. The Abrahamic religions teach that we were created in God's image. "By wisdom Yahweh founded the earth. By understanding, he established the heavens." (Prov 3:19, WEB) If God created everything with and through wisdom, then we can be wise too, if we imitate God. Or, conversely, if we imitate God, we will be wise. In either case, it is in our genes.

"Yahweh, how many are your works! In wisdom have you made them all. The earth is full of your riches. There is the sea, great and wide, in which are innumerable living things, both small and great animals. There the ships go, and leviathan, whom you formed to play there." (Ps 104:24-6)

This mention of Leviathan as symbol of divine creative power is interesting. I have never seen a whale in the flesh but even through the mediation of the television screen I have always held these creatures in awe. Even so, I am grateful for having seen this symbol of divine power. Other than sailors and merchants, the average person could not have had a close view like that of whales until very recently.

Or, maybe not.

In the past year researchers have found to their surprise that there were far more whales plying the oceans than they imagined. The whaling industry has been decimating their numbers for three or four centuries, not two centuries as previously thought. Studies have found that a truly pristine reef, where humans have not altered the ecosystem, there are many whales and large predators like sharks and few smaller animals. In other words, the triangle rule on land, where many small animals support fewer predators does not apply undersea. The triangle seems to be upside down. So in a sense the scripture was right, God formed leviathan to play there.

We have all but exterminated the creatures God created to play under the seas. We have literally dredged the ocean floor. This terrible loss in modern times not only of whales but all large predators, such as the sharks and killer whales, and even the universe of plankton that support the largest of them all, the blue whale, is surely symptomatic of human folly. We have repudiated the dictum, repeated throughout the Book of Genesis, to "be fruitful and increase and fill the earth." (9:1, NEB)

This is all the more frightening in light of the recent discovery by science that almost all the mass extinctions on earth were caused not by meteors but by toxic plumes of sulphur dioxide seeping out from under the seas. The sea has the potential not only to symbolize the creative power of God, but also His anger and destructive force.

To know wisdom is to purify land, sea and sky, before it purifies the land of us, and all living things.

On the other hand, we will know that we have attained to wisdom when we form a world government and establish rule of law beyond national borders, beyond the coasts of nations. But that will require a moral leap forward on our part. Abdu'l-Baha promised in a prayer that we can, with the confirmation of the breath of the Holy Spirit, become "whales swimming in the oceans of life." (Tablets of the Divine Plan, 107) Only then, when the spiritual ocean is clean, can we will start to repopulate the devastated material seas. Then and only then will the oceans be fruitful and beautiful and increase once again, and leviathan swim free beneath our ships.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Agrarian Hillsides Forever

Agriculture as Social Ballast

Hillside Agrarianism

By John Taylor; 2010 May 22, Azamat 05, 167 BE

In imagining hillside housing developments I was influenced by Victor Davis Hanson, a scholar of Greek and small-time farmer. His "The Other Greeks, The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization," (The Free Press, New York, 1995) is one of the most important contributions to classical studies in recent decades.

It has long been recognized that modern ideas of democracy, freedom and equal rights are derived from Greek and Roman civilization. The thesis of "The Other Greeks" is that the greatness of Hellas was in turn a result of their unique form of agrarianism, the first and perhaps most brilliant of its type. Although Hanson's later writings lean toward chauvinism and warmongering, this should not obscure the importance of this apology for the farmer, for conservatism and agrarianism. Hanson cites several ancient sources that I cannot resist repeating here.

He quotes the Roman agronomist Columella, who considered agriculture to be society's Sine Qua Non, "Even if the state should become destitute of its professors, still it would prosper just as in the past. ... yet without its farmers mankind can neither subsist nor be fed." (Hanson, The Other Greeks, pp. 14-15) Hanson also cites (pages 4-5) these other examples of Ancient Greek thought about agriculture:

"When farming goes well, all other arts go well, but when the earth is forced to lie barren, the others almost cease to exist." (Xenophon, Oeconomicus, 5:17)

"The farmers do all the work, no one else." (Aristophanes, Pax 511) (this makes sense when you consider that all our energy comes from our food.)

"The yeomen alone preserve the land." (Euripides, Orestes 920)

"(Agriculture is) the most honest of all the occupations, inasmuch as [their] wealth is not derived from other men (and is a profession that) contributes to the making of manly character." (4th century BCE quasi-Aristotle)

In view of this, it is essential to incorporate farming into the education of every child, and to see to it that almost all citizens are regularly exposed to agricultural land and facilities. The word for this state of affairs is agrarianism. An agrarian society comes about when a large majority of the population is involved, directly or indirectly, in agricultural activity. As Hanson points out, the Greek and Roman civilizations began as agrarian experiments. This experience brought out staid virtues that enabled what we now call democracy and popular government to come about. Agrarianism encouraged a large proportion of the population to value independence and equality and to love freedom. The farmer, and the stirling, conservative qualities of farmers, will surely always be essential elements of a healthy society.

No matter how technically advanced we become, we will still need to involve most if not all members of society in casual gardening, if not full-time farming. One reason for this is that agriculture is as foundational spiritually as it is physically. Office workers today are finding that spending their lunch hours tending a rooftop garden on their office towers reduces stress, banishes depression and brings a fulfilment to their lives that they would not have imagined possible.

The Hillside Housing development, therefore, would incorporate gardening and farming into the design of every household. Every city block, be it rural or urban, has its sun-ward side covered with gardens, greenhouses, vineyards, orchards and crops. This would place agriculture close by and encourage all residents, no matter what their interests, to at least stroll through the garden side as a recreation. The steep slope of the buildings' sunny side incorporates the physical features of the hilly and often mountainous countryside of Greece. By constantly climbing these near-vertical terraces in order to tend vines and other crops grown down the slope of city blocks residents would indulge in rigorous exercise as part of their daily lifestyle.

It is well-established that such an active lifestyle eliminates obesity and discourages sedentary habits that are endemic to modern living. So, even if it becomes possible for robots to do all the work of tending hillside farms, it would be highly desirable not to allow them to do so. Perhaps residents will strike a compromise where humans supervise and do light work while robots do the most unpleasant and repetitive manual labour.


Friday, May 21, 2010

Still Defining Wisdom


Seeking a Modern Definition of Wisdom

By John Taylor; 2010 May 21, Azamat 04, 167 BE

In this series we have treated wisdom as beauty of the soul and as a kind of love of knowledge that ultimately only God can command. We looked at Baha'u'llah's definition of wisdom as "to fear God, to know Him, and to recognize His Manifestations;" this wisdom, He says, is gained by detachment and pious behaviour. (Summons, 5.113, p. 233) By contrast, the definition of wisdom in the Wikipedia seems rather mundane and utilitarian. Here, wisdom is how well a person's use of knowledge would bear up under a cost-benefit analysis.

"Wisdom is a deep understanding of people, things, events or situations, empowering the ability to choose or act to consistently produce the optimum results with a minimum of time and energy. Wisdom is the ability to optimally (effectively and efficiently) apply perceptions and knowledge and so produce the desired results. Wisdom is comprehension of what is true or right coupled with optimum judgment as to action." (

What the Wiki is doing here is leaning towards a different kind of wisdom. The Greeks had two words for wisdom, sophia and phronesis. Baha'u'llah's definition leans towards wisdom as sophia, the female attributes of God, God as loving, nurturing mother. If you are wise, you will become a lover of God's holy Manifestation, and follow His Law. The Wikipedia definition leans towards phronesis, practical wisdom. Ultimately, if everybody embraced sophia, we would produce the "desired results" consistently. But phronesis describes a practical ability that can be dealt with without referring to God. I will discuss Aristotle's ideas about phronesis in an upcoming essay.

My search for definitions of wisdom has turned up many such concepts from older sources but no new ones. We seem little concerned with wisdom, or at least defining it, in this day and age. So let me offer my attempt.

Definition: Wisdom is paying attention to statistical indicators. Most definitions of wisdom were made up before statistics was invented, but that is basically what most resolutions of practical wisdom end up as, simply acting in such a way that if millions of others do the same thing, the greater number would be better off. Wisdom, then, is acting as if studies based on the scientific method make a difference as to how I should behave.

For example, studies indicate that it is unwise to drink out of plastic bottles. If you do, there is a slightly greater chance that your progeny will be born without sexual organs. In the U.S., the number of such births is growing from the hundreds to the thousands every year. If you are beyond childbearing age as we are, well, I still prefer to drink my water out of glass bottles. Just in case. From love of wisdom, call it. Ideally, of course you would live in Japan where the proper authorities banned the worst plastics outright back in the 1990's. But if you are so unfortunate as not to Japanese, if your regulatory overseers are unwise or corrupt, then you must make a conscious decision based on statistical likelihood every time you buy something liquid.

One new way to define a wise decision I gleaned from the postscript of a Michael Crichton novel, State of Fear, notorious for trying to trash global warming. Written before the trickle of evidence became a flood, Crichton's thesis rightly made him a laughing stock. It is a pity that all this brouhaha distracted from a brilliant suggestion he made in the same book for removing the main source of corruption in science. The Wikipedia article on this novel states:

"In Appendix I, Crichton warns both sides of the global warming debate against the politicization of science. Here he provides two examples of the disastrous combination of pseudo-science and politics: the early 20th-century ideas of eugenics (which he directly cites as one of the theories that allowed for the Holocaust) and Lysenkoism." (

He also made an important suggestion. Instead of wasting time and money making study after study for and against an industry or product -- for example, we have seen over the past several decades one study saying wine, coffee or whatever is good for you followed by another that says it is bad, followed by a counter-study that says it will kill you; good, bad, good, bad, in an endless cycle.

We can get off this whole, wasteful, deceitful merry-go-round simply by de-privatizing science.

Wisdom suggests that we go even further than Crichton suggested. Start a scientific regulatory body run by governments, same as now, except be sure that it also handles the licensing of scientists, the publicizing of results, and the funding of laboratories and research. If a company wants to foster research into its industry it can only do so by contributing to that single funding arm. It has little say in what research is done and none about who keeps their job, much less what results come out of the laboratories. If a fruit grower, say, wants to pay a researcher to investigate the fruit it grows, it can but the results cannot be labelled scientific, nor can the researchers call themselves scientists. The slightest suspicion of lost objectivity should end all publicity and funding right away.

License and Regulate Wisdom in Religion

Like science, religion is horribly corrupt. Fanaticism is rampant. Moderate, thinking believers from all faiths can do something about this, though. Why not take steps to regulate matters of faith similar to what Crichton suggested for science? Unite funding for interfaith causes into a single oversight agency. Let it handle whatever affects the reputation of religion in general, as opposed to specific belief systems. If a religious leader denounces another faith group or persecutes a minority, take away the tax-free status of his church or synagogue and strip him of his status as a public figure.

Both John Comenius and Baha'u'llah used the phrase "one common faith" to describe the body of beliefs that everybody, of whatever religious affiliation, agrees is right and true. This interfaith agency should seek to broaden the scope of the One Common Faith, using the argument that statistical studies prove that people live longer, are happier and healthier when they have moderate religious devotion and contacts. This process should gradually lead to the election of democratic legislative body, the World Parliament of Religions.

License and Regulate Wise Leaders in Business and Politics

The same regulation and licensing should apply for all leaders, in every area of human endeavour. Corporate criminal organizations like BP Petroleum should not just have lawsuits to fear. In the event of an accident with loss of life or environmental damage where negligence is suspect, they should immediately lose their licenses as business leaders. Let them fight to prove their innocence so they can become leaders again. If anybody in the entire management team escapes criminal prosecution, send them out as labourers to mop up their own mess before they can work anywhere else.

The same thing should apply to investors. When "accidents" due to negligence occur, their money should be frozen and subject to confiscation. That would make companies like BP far less attractive prospects, bankrupting many even before they can commit a crime.