There are Luddites Lurking Amongst Us

Sometimes your readers can see right through you, hard as you try to cover up your true self.

Anyway, that’s what appeared to happen to moi yesterday, when yet another well-known agricultural writer apparently discovered this site for the first time and promoted it on Twitter.

You see, Tom Philpott, who writes for Mother Jones and has a fairly extensive writing résumé, has nearly 18,000 twitter followers as compared to my 1,400. He’s a talented writer and I’ve enjoyed reading what he has to say, even if I don’t always agree with it. Because he’s such a Luddite.

Imagine my surprise when he tweeted this:

This is very 2006: Just discovered a very cool independent ag blog called @BigPictureAg: Check it out:

OK. Let me get this straight. He said, “this is very 2006.” Talk about a backhanded compliment. Then again, considering the Luddite source, perhaps it’s the best compliment possible.

That fits me about right, Tom. I’ve always been about six or seven years “behind.”

But we do have a situation here where a bona fide Luddite has implied that I’m a Luddite. That is a bit much to bear, given how I view him, with his newsboy cap and the old-fashioned farm values he embraces which some refer to as “romanticized” old-style farming. I can assure you, dear reader, that Philpott is way, way more of a Luddite than I am.

Yeah, sure, I dedicate Thursday’s to Luddite photo day and it has surprised me to find out which people seem to enjoy the Luddite photos the most. Like my friend and relative through marriage, an architect in the twin cities, who had a brightly painted fish head attached to her dining room ceiling the last time I was there. Who knew? I thought she was into modernism. But, she leaves comments saying she loves the old tractors that I feature in Luddite-day photos and videos and wants to own them, in fact.

In another recent happening behind the scenes here at b.p.a., I was interviewed by a large farm journal in the Netherlands this month. I didn’t know that the Netherlands had Luddite inhabitants with their petri dish meat and color-specific LED lighted greenhouses and all of that. I had previously viewed them as a modern liberal progressive nation, but now I know better. Because my interview took place by land line phone for an hour while the journalist took notes by hand, and I was later contacted for my physical address so he could send me a print copy. Would that I could “translate” a digital copy instead. We Luddites have a way of finding each other, don’t we? And to add to the irony, the subject of the interview was futurism. Go grab yourself a copy if Luddite futurism is a subject that interests you.

So why do people who are modern and progressive, seem to have a hidden Luddite inside of them just trying to get out?

I think what’s happening here is that we as humans are having trouble catching up to the rapid technological changes that have occurred in the past number of decades. We are all part of the system, yet none of us can individually control what the whole rest of the system is doing or where it is headed. I like to rely on my gut feelings and sometimes some of our advances just don’t feel right.

It bothers me a great deal that the average urban dweller, and farm family, too, doesn’t know how to grow their own food. To me, that just doesn’t feel right. And it bothers me that monster machinery can conquer the land to the point that the whole Midwest looks like one giant outdoor factory. That doesn’t feel right. And no one cares, because it’s just fly-over country. That doesn’t feel right, either.

And, in farming, it bothers me that the people who over-think all of these things, like myself, all seem to come to the same conclusion, and that is that the farming methods of the mid-twentieth century were about the best systems ever.

Please don’t say I’m just romanticizing the past.

In the mid-century, we employed machinery to produce the food that we needed, but we did so while rotating crops and livestock through our fields. Pigs were fed slop from the house, and reveled in the mud. Cattle were set free to roam the corn fields following the harvest which contained enough fallen ears and fodder to make them happy cows. And farm kids learned to grow a garden and “put food by” from their grandparents. On Saturday nights the whole family headed to their vibrant local town to shop and visit with one another. It felt very real. Today, things don’t always feel so real.

And the complexity of it all is making us anxious. Again, it doesn’t feel right. It’s as if we’re in a race between technology saving us and we humans tripping some tipping point that our living breathing planet will be forced to respond to in some sudden and unexpected way.

There is good and bad in everything. Always has been, and always will be. No amount of wishful idealism is ever going to change that. Not everything going on today is bad. Not everything that was going on in the past middle of the century was good. No doubt the world is unfolding as it is supposed to, so our job is simply to do our own best and then be a witness to it. We’re each a necessary cog in the wheel, a vital ant in the colony. And the only 20/20 vision is hindsight, so who can be so arrogant to say what is right or wrong today for paving the way to the future?

Oh. One last thing. Did I mention that I detest cell phones?

11 thoughts on “There are Luddites Lurking Amongst Us

  1. Lee Hethcox

    cell phones and texting are the only way I hear from some of my children so I take mine out to the garden and the barn. Guess we each choose our areas to be Ludditish..mine would be the kitchen and food production. I garden mostly by hand tool, and my chickens are homestead style. When none of my children seemed to be interested in all those homestead skills I worked so hard to impart, I was sad, but now I realize that just keeping on doing what I’ve always done is the best lesson of all. Every child has picked up something and all of them understand where their food comes from, and who knows, one day a couple of them might be homesteading too. Hope I’m around to see it!

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      Admittedly, it is my place in life right now that allows for me to get along without using a cell phone. I do use one when I travel, true confessions. And I’m on the ‘net far too much so I like to be completely unplugged when I’m not.

      What I detest about c.phones is people using them who lack etiquette in using them. Also, I can personally do without the interruptions.

      I never thought gardening was rubbing off on our boys but it did big time. They both love growing things and cooking with the produce, too.

      Thanks for the note.

  2. Ben

    Terrific column, Kay. As for Tom Philpott, I began following him when he wrote for Grist and have kept up with his work at Mother Jones. I trust the exposure he’s given you on Twitter doesn’t overwhelm.

    I share your professed Luddite leanings. This part of your commentary especially resonates: “We are all part of the system, yet none of us can individually control what the whole rest of the system is doing or where it is headed. I like to rely on my gut feelings and sometimes some of our advances just don’t feel right.”

    I live on a small patch of farmland that am fortunate to own here in east central Georgia. Some of it has been in our family for more than 40 years. Not a day passes that I don’t recognize how this land was reshaped by exploitive farming practices of earlier times, especially when cotton was king and mules were the dominant source of power.

    Now I ride the roads of my county and witness the ongoing spread of massive high-tech irrigation systems – dozens if not hundreds of them, all of them designed to suck precious water from our abundant aquifers and spread it on drought-plagued fields planted to cotton, corn and bean. No, Kay, this does not feel right. It doesn’t feel any more “right” than the exploitation of slave – then tenant – labor to grow and harvest “white gold” in the 19th and 20th centuries.

    Every day, as I tend to my small cow and sheep herds and work my garden with low-tech equipment, I think about the souls who worked this land before us and wonder what will come of it when today’s technology obsessed captains of agricultural industry have their fill.

    No, it doesn’t feel right.

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      What a wonderful note. I loved your comparison of irrigation to slaves. You could say the same of the soil. We just don’t have good government regulations and policy in place, that’s what it comes down to. Like I also wrote, just keep doing your important part which is the best any of us can do. It sounds like you are!

  3. RBM

    Thanks for a ‘look in the mirror’, Kay.

    [quote]I think what’s happening here is that we as humans are having trouble catching up to the rapid technological changes that have occurred in the past number of decades.[/quote]

    This is what I call the ‘rate of change’ theme. In science it can be denoted by Delta.

    It interests me and I’ve noted it’s discussion on The Oil Drum over the years, I’ve read it.

    Gut feeling can be very useful and important (especially to a left-hemisphere dominant INTJ as myself) to navigating the amount of change we come across in our daily lives.

    Tom Campbell has made a case the the rate of change is increasing because of the evolution on this reality system. That indicates to me more effort to stay in the same place, even.

    Red Queen anyone ?

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      When I wrote that I knew it was nothing new, just had to say it.
      I’ll check out your links.
      Ahhh, yes, INTJ. I hope there’s still a bunch of them hanging around here.

      1. RBM

        I remembered you mentioned you had been a regular reader of TOD, once upon a time. That’s the reason I entered that fragment of thought. I expected you knew about it, already.

        What wasn’t clear to me, was if the rest of your readership had a grasp on it, or not.

  4. Tom Philpott

    Ha! Hi, Kay, from one of the Luddites in your midst! Thanks for the kind words. The “so 2006″ remark just meant to say that ending around 2006, the internet seemed to teem with smart independent blogs (I ran an indy blog myself then called Bitter Greens Journal). I was always stumbling upon something new and excellent. For various reasons, I guess, much of that energy has dissipated. So it was a very pleasant surprise a week or so ago to discover Big Picture Agriculture–which is well-written, well-researched, and for my topic, highly researched. Honestly, it’s the first independent blog I’ve added to my RSS in years. The post that drew me in was your recent one on fracking and N fertilizer, about which I’ll have more to say this week. You’re right, by the way, that in my 2010 work on N, I should have mentioned the possibility that US shale gas had the potential to change the game for US N production, which was then rapidly being offshored to places with more conventional nat gas, like Trindiad and Tobago. Anyway, thanks for all the great work.
    All best,

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      Thanx for signing in. I did know what you meant by your comment which raises an interesting question that I hadn’t thought about before, why no new sites like this? One thing that scares me a bit from time to time is the prospect of getting myself in trouble from a legal standpoint, hardly worth my volunteer time and trouble. I pretty much just blow with the wind around here.


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