The war against abundance in the physical world (1)

1. Introduction

Most people would assume that the digital commons is naturally abundant (even though it does take a physical infrastructure to maintain), but that natural and processed material goods are ‘naturally’ rival and scarce. We intuit and know that a market-based and for-profit based system is necessarily interested in maintaining scarcity, but it may not be as central to our awareness.

So, the following essay by Roberto Verzola is profoundly radical and perhaps counter-intuitive. It details, with several case studies, that the current system is actually based on a radical war against ‘natural abundance’, not just for information, but in agriculture as well.

In this first installment we focus on his analysis of the problems, in the next one, we’ll excerpt his recommendations for a positive policy for abundance.

Here’s the full reference, and the link for downloading is here:

Verzola, Roberto,Undermining Abundance (Counter-Productive Uses of Technology and Law in Nature, Agriculture and the Information Sector)(July 14, 2008). INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS AND ACCESS TO KNOWLEDGE, Gaelle Krikorian and Amy Kapczynski, eds., Zone Books, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

The abstract states that:

Technology and law are increasingly used to undermine processes of abundance intrinsic to nature, agriculture and the information sector. A number of examples are reviewed here. Such counterproductive use of technology and law is traced to corporate profitseeking. The relationships between the phenomenon of abundance and the related concepts of scarcity and commons are explored. Finally, approaches are proposed that harness abundance for the human good.”

Here’s the author’s institutional affiliation in the Phillipines: Halalang Marangal; Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM); University of the Philippines – School of Economics

2. Sample case study and argument

Here’s an excerpt from Robert Verzola’s essay, regarding agricultural abundance:

After the Second World War, the chemical industries of the West shifted their attention back to civilian applications, including the large scale production of synthetic urea, organo-chlorines and other fertilizers and pesticides. These agrochemicals were marketed supposedly to provide additional nutrition for farmers’ crops and to kill crop pests. However, farmers and governments did not realize that these products also killed, incapacitated, weakened, or otherwise made life difficult for very important but littleknown creatures: soil organisms which turned organic matter into natural plant food, and friendly organisms like predators and parasites which kept pest populations in check. These creatures comprised a vast, largely invisible and unrecognized commons which all farmers unknowingly tapped into, every time they planted seeds and grew crops. In their defense, the chemical industry might claim that they did not know either (which would be an admission of recklessness, if not negligence). But this excuse would be untenable by the 1960s, when the chemical industry viciously attacked Rachel Carson and her book Silent Spring, which had called attention to the harmful effects of DDT and other agrochemicals on nontarget organisms, including human beings.

In effect, the chemical industry was selling farmers and governments a deadly technological Trojan Horse, an anti-abundance poisoned pill. Agrochemicals appeared to offer more abundant harvests; in truth, their deployment would gradually weaken and take the life out of the farmers’ biological support systems such as natural sources of plant food and pest enemies. As more agrochemicals were used, the diverse soil populations dwindled, the soil became less fertile and farmers’ crops starved. To keep the plants from starving, more synthetic fertilizers were added, which caused the living soil populations to dwindle even further. As the predator and parasite populations likewise dwindled, pest populations went up. So farmers had to spray more pesticides, which then killed even more predators and parasites. More recent studies based on the theory of trophobiosis suggest that synthetic fertilizers actually make plants more attractive to pests. Farmers who took the poisoned pill were caught in the trap and fell into agrochemical addiction, draining life out of the soil and around the crops.

In the 1960s, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)4 introduced IR8, the first of a series of new “highyielding varieties” (HYV) of rice, whose high yields partly came from their better responsiveness to chemical treatment. Farmers were wary and few were willing to let go of their traditional varieties. Drawn by aggressive government subsidies and lending programs, however, more and more farmers switched. As they did, they also stopped planting their heirloom varieties, which were soon lost as the old seeds they had saved dried up and died. As the heirloom varieties disappeared and HYV-dependence grew, farmers also lost their selection and breeding skills.

Agrochemicals and the new chemically responsive varieties would eventually be promoted as the “Green” Revolution. Even today, this technological poisoned pill continues to keep millions of farmers addicted to agrochemicals, mired in poverty and debt.

Another facet in the technological substitutions of this period was the gradual replacement of work animals by farm machinery. In the Philippines, for instance, carabaos were the farmers’ main source of mechanical power. Carabaos also grazed the less fertile areas around the farm, their dung enriching the soil. The animal usually recovered by itself from injury or sickness. Even more – perhaps the most amazing thing of all – the female carabao gave birth to another carabao every two years or so. Yet, through the same poisoned pill strategy, farm machinery suppliers and the government eventually managed to get many farmers to switch to a mechanical power source that was fuelled by costly imported gasoline instead of free grass, gave out noxious pollutants instead of milk and natural fertilizer, required a skilled technician and costly spare parts if it stopped working, and of course never gave birth to its own replacement.”

3. Other examples of artificial scarcity

Counterproductive efforts to control abundance and scarcity have occurred in other fields as well:

* Drug laws make medically effective herbal preparations inaccessible to many. Ironically, herbs easily grown in backyards and community gardens, whose preparations would be illegal if prescribed by traditional healers, are often the basis for very expensive drugs manufactured by pharmaceutical firms. It is not a coincidence that many of these firms are owned by the same agrochemical companies which control the seed industry.

* Through misleading advertising and collusion with hospitals and medical professionals, formula milk companies have managed to undermine mothers’ confidence in their own breast milk. This had led to a decline in breastfeeding in a number of Asian countries.23 As mothers try substitutes; their production of milk slows down and eventually stops, creating a vast new market for formula milk.

* A traditional Filipino song about plants around the hut (“Bahay Kubo”), taught to every child in grade school, enumerates 18 food plants that include legumes, greens, root crops, seeds, nuts, and spices. The song omits many more. Filipinos have become so fixated on Western foods and diets that they overlook the great variety of indigenous food sources, many of which simply grow untended like weeds in their backyards. The monoculture mindset treats these food sources as weeds that must be suppressed. Razed by farm mechanization and the use of herbicides, most of them have now disappeared from people’s backyards, from their diets, and from their consciousness, creating real food scarcity and malnutrition.

* Organic products are scarce and expensive because a system biased towards chemicals imposes on organic producers the burden of proof: detailed record keeping, testing, inspection, certification and labeling. What if producers of chemically treated crops and foods, not organic producers, were instead required by law, in accordance with the “polluter pays” principle, to keep detailed records of chemical treatments; get their products regularly inspected and tested by accredited laboratories for minimum residue levels; undergo thirdparty certification; and follow mandatory labelling requirements to identify which chemicals and by what amounts their food products have been exposed to? If this were so, the price tags of both organic and chemically treated foods would change dramatically in favor of organics.”

2 Comments The war against abundance in the physical world (1)

  1. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » Abundance as a field of study (1)

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