By Robert Wolf
Ruskin Press, Decorah, Iowa, 2016
Robert Wolf’s BUILDING THE AGRICULTURAL CITY: A HANDBOOK FOR URBAN RENEWAL is a stern warning about twenty-first century American cultural trends and the economic chaos enveloping this country and the world at large. We are living within a rigid, unwieldy industrial age in marked and inevitable decline. Striking parallels in Wolf’s thinking are found in the late British philosopher/historian Bertrand Russell’s UNDERSTANDING HISTORY, a book preceding AGRICULTURAL CITY by 60 years. Although separated by two generations, Russell’s work stands as an excellent companion guide to Wolf’s new book, with Russell no doubt still influencing the work of a number of other modern day futurists, ecologists, and historical philosophers.
Russell’s, “perennial conflict between country and city,” is seen in such American historical periods as Alexander Hamilton’s strong federal government blueprint for this country verses Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian utopia, the brash and irascible common-man advocate Andrew Jackson’s public brawl with Nicholas Biddle’s FIRST U.S. BANK, and the failure of evangelical populist William Jennings Bryant to stem the forces of America’s industrial Gilded Age and subsequent entry into World War I. Russell notes that over time an individual’s creative initiative is unavoidably, increasingly diminished as the number of elements originating in industrial organizations quickly multiplies as life passes. We are born in sterile hospitals, educated by government institutions and shaped by inflexible, outdated traditions. We are employed by large, nameless conglomerates. We borrow money from multinational banks decreed as being ‘too big to fail.’ We seek insurance and assurance from large, impersonal, industrial age entities whose primary mission is accelerating the economic separation of the few wealthy among us, from the masses whose purchasing power and outlook is more bleak every day. Some may find Russell and Robert Wolf harbingers of doom in their forecasting an apocalyptic post-industrial age, and for that reason difficult to digest. Accurate or not their perspectives are still valuable sources for consideration in many different settings. Truths are not always pleasant things.
Wolf points to the convergent 21st century ‘power-forces’ of industry, finance, and military together pushing America and the world around us closer and closer to the abyss. To counter this slip into darkness, Wolf argues that everyday Americans must take on a new, unfettered “urgent awareness” of their current state and trajectory into their immediate future. The models of living that currently mold and define our daily lives are not merely antiquated; they are showing clear signs of disintegration. This industrial age atrophy is seen in the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, the kind of ‘centralization’ Russell says is an unmistakable sign of crisis, usually occurring in the last stages of a civilization’s life cycle.
AGRICULTURAL CITY tells us only four major banks dominate the American financial sector. Our agricultural industry, mostly out of the hands of individual farmers, is essentially controlled by two global giants. A half-dozen multi-national corporations manipulate 90% of the media market. 60 years ago, Russell warned if a population wishes to escape tyranny it must carry a ‘free thinking’ attitude towards their government. Citizens need to, “demand that the government shall act in the general interest and not be deceived by a superstitious theology into the belief that what is in fact only the interest of the governing elite is identical to the general interest.” Russell’s observation that many more nations have been brought to destruction by fear of change than by love of it seems relevant here. Wolf has found most Americans could not be bothered to consider change. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond notes the values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs. These three views are all directly tied to themes found in BUILDING AN AGRICULTURAL CITY.
Solutions? Robert Wolf futuristically calls for a sustainable, self-reliant economy developed on an extreme grass-roots level for the benefit of locals, who need not wait for the inevitable collapse of life as we now know it. Rural American must once again become self-reliant, self-sufficient, and regional in building and sustaining their respective agricultural units. The development of, “regional arks,” social and economic units sturdy enough to survive inevitable hard times ahead, is needed. Community-level banks, worker owned co-ops, closed-loop agricultural systems designed to provide sustenance year-round locally; all are offered as prototypes envisioned by Wolf. He does not deny his utopian vision demands a total rethinking within rural societies like his own Iowa, along with thousands of other potential ark regions. He sees little motivation among the masses to act, at present, but the incentive he is providing in AGRICULTURAL CITY may come too late to spur action. One wonders whether Wolf’s model is adaptable enough to fit the needs of an America whose urban areas and complex cultures dwarf those far beyond city limits. And how these arks can fend off the insidious march of technology from beyond the horizons of the arks? To his credit, Robert Wolf has courageously described, with admirable personal concern, the present conditions in his rural Iowa, but even on a more macro-level, the health and vitality of American civilization is under serious threat right now. He writes with regret how past attempts at raising awareness have been met largely with indifference. The extreme heavy-lifting needed to leave the comfort zone of COMCAST television and internet, ATM banking, and throwing hard-earned money at the latest technological fad or leisure device, is extremely hard for us to even contemplate today. We are complacent in our individual comfort zones.
Americans must recognize, sooner or later, that we have lived far too large since the end of World War II, squandering massive fortune and recklessly raping the earth’s resources without restraint. Through technology the outside world is increasingly aware of America’s gluttonous, insatiable habits. No longer are they willing to accept leftovers. This portends a severe, permanent reckoning will come sooner than we think, its magnitude unimaginable. Robert Wolf cautions that the aftermath of industrialism’s implosion will be too late to act. Preparation begins with honest conversation and a commitment to wanting and using less of everything. The key is envisioning and implementing new models under new systems that are built organically, a few of which are already happening today. The scale is local, the systems fully integrated from within.
The real question is whether Americans are ready to face these fundamental truths. Bertrand Russell observed that social cohesion is only rendered possible by some unifying creed or moral code. Robert Wolf’s BUILDING AN AGRICULTURAL CITY is an attempt at getting us to take a good, hard look at ourselves and being open to change.