We live in one of the most prosperous nations in the world with among the highest levels of income and wealth, including those of us in the so-called middle class. Even after the COVID pandemic had crippled our economy, the stock markets quickly rebounded, unemployment has since dropped to historically low levels, and wages and salaries are rising. However, public attention quickly focused on inflation, even though price increases are modest by historical standards. The US Congress responded quickly to address the economic impacts of the pandemic, but has since returned to gridlock. (Ikerd, 2005) We can’t afford the costs of dealing with issues of climate change or social justice. We Americans are an increasingly discontent, dissatisfied, frustrated, and unhappy people. Regardless of how much we have, we never seem to have enough. I am convinced this growing sense of national malaise is a symptom of people having lost any common sense of connectedness with each other and with the earth.
The First Great Separation
People in prehistoric civilizations understood the importance of our interconnectedness, with the earth as well as each other. They had direct, personal relationships with the earth and with the other people with whom they shared the bounty of the earth. They lived in nature, in a close personal relationship with nature, and ventured even deeper into nature regularly to search for food to sustain their physical well-being. They were personally connected with nature. They knew that everything of use to them, everything that sustained the, ultimately came from the earth. They also were personally connected with each other. They relied on each other not only to help reap the bounties of nature but to add meaning and quality to their lives.
The first great separation of humans from nature began some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago with the agricultural revolution. Agriculture emerged at different times and in different ways in different parts of the world, but the transition from hunting and gathering to farming eventually transformed societies in virtually every part of the world. Some historians see the agricultural revolution as a blessing while others see it as a curse. Agriculture made possible an explosion in human population from some five million people 10,000 years ago to more than seven billion people today. The material benefits of agriculture to humanity have been impressive, but the costs to the earth have been great—including extensive depletion and pollution of soil, air, and water and alarming losses of biological diversity.
By tilling the land and domesticating animals, humans were able to lessen their dependence on the bounty of scarcity of nature. People then began seeing the other living things of the earth as resources to be exploited rather than fellow living beings or a sacred trust to be revered and protected. Perhaps most important, in their separation from other things of nature there was a sense of independence from the “creation” and thus a sense of separation from the “creator” of the earth. Prior to the agricultural revolution, attempts to dominate or control nature would have been understood as desecrations of the creation—desecration of the earth.
The Second Great Separation
The second great separation followed the industrial revolution. The separation of people into farmers and non-farmers actually began with the early enclosure movement during the 1600s. Prior to the enclosures, land was held in common for public use, not owned by individuals. Land was freely available to everyone to use to meet their basic needs of survival and sustenance. In a sense, every family was a farm family. They meet their needs for food by cultivating land held in common, “the commons.” Wholesale enclosure of the commons during the period from 1760 and 1820 meant that people lost their right to use common land to produce food, in village after village all across Europe.
The industrial revolution and rise of capitalism both occurred during this time. Adam Smith wrote his landmark book, The Wealth of Nations, in 1776. Capitalism justified privatizing land so the most efficient use of land could be determined by market competition rather than community consensus. Labor then also had to be privatized or “commodified” as a result of the enclosures. Those who lost access to land for food were forced to sell their labor to employers so they could buy food they could no longer produce because they lost access to land. Those without opportunities or abilities to earn enough money to buy food were left hungry. As a result, the English Poor Laws, initiated in 1600, were expanded in 1834 to cover everyone, not just widows, children, aged and disabled. Various other attempts were made to protect the working class from the social upheaval triggered by removal of land from the commons. Nothing has seemed to work.
Chronic hunger was but one symptom of the second great separation. The industrial revolution not only separated people from the land that had provided their food, but it also separated people from each other. The necessity for people to relate to each other personally to meet their basic needs was greatly diminished or removed by the reliance on market economies. Economies actually don’t create anything of material or tangible value; they only facilitate the process of acquiring things of real value from the earth. Markets simply allow us to meet our needs through impersonal, economic relationships rather than through personal relationships with each other. People could earn money producing things for people they didn’t know personally to buy things to meet their needs from people they didn’t know personally. This allowed the economy to function more efficiently because people would specialize in doing what they did best. However, this diminished necessity for personal relationships brought by the industrial revolution, the social cohesion within families, communities, and society began to diminish as well.
In spite of the spread of agriculture and industrialization around the world, a sense of sacredness in nature persisted throughout much of human history. Ten thousand years after the agricultural revolution, the Apostle Paul wrote in the first chapter of Romans in the New Testament: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” To the early Christians, the essence of God was still clearly revealed in nature. Similar beliefs were passed down from generation to generation in the major religions and in Indigenous cultures around the world.
The European colonization of the 1500s and 1600s brought a fundamentally different culture to the Americas. The colonists were guided by a quotation from the book of Genesis: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” To the early American settlers, the wilderness, nature, was something to be conquered, or at least, subdued. They respected the other things of nature as adversaries rather than as cohabitants. They cleared away the wilderness to grow crops and raise livestock. When they “wore out” a piece of land by farming they moved on to another. They killed off the wildlife and pushed the indigenous peoples, the native Americans, further and further west.
The Third Great Separation
Even among the European immigrants to America, however, food was still understood as a means of connecting with both God and the earth. Religious holidays were celebrated with festive meals shared among family and friends. Food was also central to family and community gatherings. “Breaking bread” was an expression of confidence, trust, and willingness to share. Food was understood and appreciated as physical, mental, and spiritual sustenance or nourishment—not simply fuel for the body. They viewed nature as an endless source of sustenance. They never had the ability to deplete the bounty of nature and damage the earth beyond its ability to continue meeting their needs.
The third great separation was the industrial agricultural revolution. Until well into the 1900s, most people in the United States retained some sense of connectedness with the earth. Farming as a “way of life” as well as a “way to make a living.” Nearly everyone in the US either lived on a farm, had lived on a farm, or knew someone who lived on a farm. When I was growing up on a small family farm in the 1940s and 1950s, rural communities were interwoven networks of people who knew each other because they worked together, mainly out of necessity. Groups of farmers, some up to forty men and boys, traveled from farm to farm to fill silos, thresh grain, or put-up hay. The men and boys worked hard, but a lot of socializing also took place at these gatherings.
The “farm wives” also renewed relationships at times of harvest. Several women and girls would gather at host farms on harvest days to help the host wife prepare the noon meal for the harvest crews. The farm women also had their individual groups who gathered periodically to make quilts to keep their families warm in winter and to help each other can fruit and make preserves or cut meat and make sausage on butchering days. The work was often tedious and tiresome but the varied conversations helped to pass the time.
The parents of kids who went to school together all knew each other. People would also renew acquaintances in town, at the barber shop or farmers’ exchange. These “networks of necessity” also were interconnected through local churches. Everybody knew everybody in their own churches as well as most folks in the other churches nearby. Many people still thanked God for their food and thanked the farmers who helped bring forth their food from the earth. Until fairly recently, there was still a sense of connectedness among the eater, the farmer, and the earth.
But, “times began to change” in rural America in the 1960s and 1970s. Wartime chemical and mechanical technologies of World War II were transformed to produce synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and affordable farm tractors. Farms could be managed more like factories, like industry. Farmers were freed from many of the previous bounds and constraints of nature. They no longer had to rotate crops and integrate crop and livestock systems to maintain soil fertility or manage pests. Individually owned field choppers replaced the big silo crews, individual combines replaced big threshing crews, and inexpensive hay balers replaced big haying crews. Farmers were then free to harvest their own crops whenever they chose, rather than wait their turn to be helped by the big crews of neighbors.
Modern kitchen conveniences also eliminated the need for farm wives to share housework. Social circles in farming communities began to narrow and narrowed further as farms grew larger and surviving farmers became fewer. Modern transportation and communication allowed farm families to look beyond their local communities to meet the economic needs. As farms became larger and fewer, many farm families were forced to abandon their farms and hope to find factory jobs to support their families. Most of the new people moving into rural area were seeking the low-paying jobs in factories that had moved to rural areas, or were trying to escape the high living costs in cities. Most people didn’t bother to get to know their new neighbors because they “didn’t need to.”
Equally important, consumers no longer knew who produced their food, where it was produced, or how it was produced. Today, what happens to food between the earth and the eater has become largely a mystery. Food for family gatherings and religious holidays are of economic importance to the food industry but have little social or spiritual significance beyond following cultural traditions. The dependence of humanity on the earth for food is no less than during the early times of hunting and gathering, but the sense of connectedness between the eater and the earth has been lost.
The Consequences of Disconnectedness
Today, we are living with the consequences of the three great separations—not just in farming and food production but through our economy and society. We have become unwitting polluters, plunders, and exploiters of the people and places that ultimately must sustain us and the future of humanity. The consequences are more readily apparent than elsewhere in today’s industrial agri-food system—where it all started 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. In spite of persistent denials by the industrial agricultural establishment, today’s so-called modern food system is destroying the resources of the earth from which it ultimately derives its productivity. The industrial agri-food system simply cannot be sustained. Mounting evidence is confirming the negative impacts of today’s dominant systems of food production on the natural environment, public health, animal welfare, and the quality of rural life.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency consistently identifies agriculture as the leading nonpoint source of pollution of rivers and streams and a major contributor to pollution of lakes, wetlands, estuaries, and groundwater. Massive “dead zones,” such as those in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay, are confirmed consequences of industrial agriculture. Agriculture has also been identified as a major contributor to global climate change. Experts disagree, but an emerging consensus seems to be that agriculture globally contributes about 15% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions—about the same as transportation. Animal welfare advocates have joined forces with those concerned with climate change in calling for an end to industrial animal agriculture or factory farms.
Agricultural pollution has also become a major public health issue. In 2015, the World Health Organization concluded that Glyphosate, the world’s most widely used agricultural pesticide, is “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Numerous scientific studies confirm that residues of Glyphosate are ubiquitous in the air, soil, water, food, and even in our bodies. In addition, scientists around the world have confirmed that the routine use of antibiotics in large-scale confinement animal operations are significant contributors to the rise in human infections by antibiotic resistant bacteria, such as the deadly MRSA. The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention,  the World Health Organization, and a special Summit Meeting on the United Nations have all called for significant restrictions or bans on the routine use of antibiotics in livestock operations for growth promotion and disease prevention.
The negative impacts of industrial agriculture on rural America are succinctly summarized in a recent letter to the book editor of the New York Times by Wendell Berry—farmer, philosopher, and gifted author: “The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and “labor”—has been taken at the lowest possible price. As apparently none of the enlightened ones has seen in flying over or bypassing on the interstate highways, its too-large fields are toxic and eroding, its streams and rivers poisoned, its forests mangled, its towns dying or dead along with their locally owned small businesses, its children leaving after high school and not coming back. Too many of the children are not working at anything, too many are transfixed by the various screens, too many are on drugs, too many are dying.” The reality of industrial strategies for rural economic development has been rural economic and social desecration.
The agri-food system and rural America are microcosms of what’s happening in the overall economies and societies in urban as well as rural areas and all around the world. The critical linkages between industrial economic development, ecological degradation, and societal collapse are just easier to see and understand on farms and in farming communities. Humanity today is confronted with a multidimensional global ecological, social, and economic crisis that has resulted from our growing disconnectedness. Social thinker and author, David Korten, refers to this time as the great unravelling. He cites compelling evidence of economic inequity and decline, natural resource depletion, global climate change, social divisions and wars, and mass extinction of species.
As Pope Francis has written: “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.”  He identifies an increasingly myopic preoccupation with economic self-interest as the root cause of this crisis. “Human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.” “Everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.”
As is becoming increasingly clear, we are confronted with an ecological, social, and spiritual crisis that is arising from our lost sense of interconnectedness with each other and with the earth—the three great separations. Reconnecting with each other and with the earth is no longer a matter of choice, it is a matter of absolute necessity.
Reconnecting through food and farming
Since the disconnectedness of nature and society began with agriculture, it seems logical to look to agriculture for a model or prototype for reconnecting with nature and society. In fact, such agricultural systems have already emerged and are growing in popularity. They go by various names, including organic, ecological, biological, biodynamic, sustainable, resilient, regenerative, and restorative agriculture, as well as permaculture, holistic management, and nature farming.
These are all slightly different approaches to achieving agricultural sustainability. A sustainable agriculture must have the ability to meet the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for those of the future. Since everything of use to us ultimately comes from the earth by way of society, a sustainable agriculture must be ecologically sound, socially responsible, and in modern complex societies, must be economically viable. The unifying principle of all of these alternatives to industrial agriculture is their respect for the inherent interconnectedness of agriculture with earth—with the air, water, soil, and energy flow of nature. This same understanding ultimately must permeate our economy and society if we are to sustain human life on earth at any level comparable to today.
Sustainable agricultural alternatives all share common roots in the scientific principles of agroecology, which applies the science of ecology to agriculture. Ecology is a study of the relationships of living organisms, including humans, with the other elements of their natural and social environment. In ecological systems, all things are interconnected. All elements of farming—soil, plants, animals, workers, farmers—are interrelated with everything else. Farms are also integrally connected with the larger natural bioregions and social communities within which they function. This is what the organic foods and local foods movements have been about. Farmers and their customers increasingly are reconnecting with nature and with each other around their common interests in food.
Agroecology also provides the conceptual foundation for the global “Food Sovereignty Movement.” Food sovereignty is a term coined in the mid-1990s by La Via Campesina, “one of the largest social movements in the world, made up of more than 200 million small and medium-scale farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous peoples, migrants and agricultural workers”. In 2007, more than 80 countries signed the “Declaration of Nyeleni,” which proclaims “The right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems”. Although less prominent than in many other countries, the food sovereignty movement is growing in the US and Canada.
Fortunately, there seems to be a general public awakening to the indigenous wisdom that national and global ecological and social problems must first be addressed locally, within caring communities. In his book, How to Thrive in the Next Economy, John Thackara focuses on “bioregionalism” as a means of “escaping from an economy that devours nature in the name of endless growth.” He highlights local initiatives to address problems related to soils, forests, water, food, housing, clothing, health care, the commons, and other basics of life and Earth.
The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies “represents thousands of communities and conveners, entrepreneurs, investors and funders who are defying business as usual” For more than 15 years they have been “imagining, incubating and refining new systems, and then moving beyond them.” The Transition Towns movement refers to “grassroots community projects that aim to increase self-sufficiency to reduce the potential effects of peak oil, climate destruction, and economic instability.” The movement was initiated in the United Kingdom in 2006. Initiatives have since been started in locations around the world, totaling more than 1,000 by 2013, with many located in the United Kingdom, Europe, North America and Australia. All of these initiatives to relocalize economies and societies are rooted in initiatives to relocalize sustainable local food systems.
Reconnecting through relocalization agri-food systems and society may seem idealistic, particularly to those who live in metropolitan areas. However, personally connected, thriving local communities were once common within the cities and could be again. In the cities as well as rural areas, the logical place to begin reconnecting with nature and each other is where the disconnectedness began, in the ways we produce and distribute food. People in urban areas may not have an opportunity to reconnect by farming, or even buying food directly from farmers. However, gardening provides people in cities, small towns, and rural areas alike with the same opportunities as farmers to reconnect with the land, with nature.
Through community gardens, gardening together, we can reconnect with each other to recreate communities of place. We come to realize that making friends and caring for the earth can contribute to our overall quality of life in ways that quick, convenient, and cheap food never could. We learn valuable lessons in how to sustain relationships with other people, as we learn how to grow plants, rotate crops, build soil fertility, manage pests, and create an interconnected garden that somehow is more than just a collection of plants. Communities of caring people, built around common interests in food, are better able to address problems such as those relating to raising children, resolving family conflicts, investing in education, fighting crime, and building communities.
We will also begin to realize that cheap food will never solve the problem of systemic hunger. Neither will impersonal, bureaucratic government food assistance programs. The only means of eliminating the kind of hunger that emerged with enclosures is to reestablish local “community food commons,” where people know each other and care about each other and are committed to ensuring that everyone has “enough good food.” We cannot and need not return to growing all of our own food or to community food “self-sufficiency,” but we can return to community “food sovereignty.”
Ultimately, we must confront the reality that all living and nonliving things of the earth, including humans, are part of the same matter and the same energy that permeates the whole of the earth. While scientific opinions differ on many things, scientists agree that the molecules of matter that make up our bodies are the same molecules that have made up everything in the past and will make up everything in the future. The biological energy that fuels our bodies and minds is the same energy that connects and reconnects the earth’s molecules to form and transform the material earth.
We must stop behaving as if we humans were somehow apart or separate from the other things of the earth. We must stop treating the non-human world as little more than an endless source of materials or objects whose sole purpose is to fulfill our uniquely human needs and desires. We must develop a deeper, more-personal and spiritual relationship with nature. We are all part of the same integral whole of nature. If human life on earth is to be sustainable, we ultimately must reconnect with each other as we reconnect with the other living and nonliving things of the earth. A good place to start reconnecting is around our common dependence on and interest in good food.
 Prepared for presentation at 2002 Tri-State Creation Care Conference, Evansville, IN, February 26, 2022.
 John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri, Columbia MO, – USA. He is the author of six books, which are available on Amazon.com: Books and Kindle E-books, and dozens of presentation papers, blog pieces, and other website posts at http://web.missouri.edu/~ikerdj/ and http://www.johnikerd.com. Email: JEIkerd@gmail.com. The professional opinions expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Missouri.
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