Mining vs Farming

I was reading an article by Robert Reich the other day, about CEO compensation packages. And it brought to mind a thought I’ve had about the economy, society, and a couple different ways we can think about it.

And being of an Earth-centered spiritual persuasion, I can see how this has bigger implications than a single article about a wealthy bastard.

Two approaches to acquiring resources

It seems to me that humans have two different mentalities of how to get resources – mining and farming.

In a mining approach, we tend to gather as much as we can of whatever we can find, without regard to the consequences.

In a farming approach, we plan crops to grow, and how those crops will meet our needs in the long term, and how growing different crops will support the long-term viability of the environment.

The mining mentality

Mining is concerned with short-term efforts to maximize resources with as little effort as possible. It also tends not to be too concerned with the consequences of the system after resources are extracted.

I mean, this makes the most sense when you look at actual mining. In my straight job, I have a client that lives on the site of an abandoned lead/zinc/silver mine. The mine has been sealed, but there’s a bunch of old equipment laying around, and occasionally you can see red water pooling in the area. So far, water quality tests indicate that there’s no contamination from the mine getting into the water supply.

But that doesn’t mean people aren’t concerned.

Now, that site was flagged for cleanup several years ago. But it was the EPA – aka taxpayers – who footed the bill. The mining company took all the profit out of the mine, ran off, and shielded themselves from accountability using shell companies and bankruptcies.

On the economic front, take a look at cases like Red Lobster – investment bankers bought the franchise, sold the real estate (and other assets) for instant cash, and left the franchise with expensive leases and higher operating costs. That made the restaurant chain less resilient to a changing market, and now they’re closing stores and filing for bankruptcy protection.

Or, consider Toys R Us, which was purchased by private equity.  “The business model typically works like this: Buy a company, load it up with debt to pay yourself dividends and fees, then squeeze labor with pay cuts, layoffs and work speed-up in order to cover the interest and principal payments.”

But mining strategies also happen in nature.  When bears are feasting on honey, nuts, and berries, they are mining the resources from an area.  When deer graze an area clean, they are mining the resources of an area.

Nature has pretty strict controls, though.  When there are more animals in an area than it can support, the animals are either forced to move, or a certain number die off from hunger.  The “carrying capacity” of an ecosystem is the maximum number of individuals it can support.

(And note – this can get complicated in some situations, like with megafauna. It is theorized that when buffalo roamed the Great Plains, their hooves churned up the soil and their excrement provided fertilizer, which helped balance the ecosystem.)

But the metaphor remains – when one species consumes all the resources in an area, and doesn’t invest anything into renewing the area, then the species left in that area suffer for lack of resources.  And this holds true in nature, in social groups, and in economics.

The Farming Mentality

Farming requires a lot of higher-level skills in order to be successful.  You have to have a lifespan long enough to track the resources you’re cultivating.  You have to be able to manage the growth of at least one cycle of resource production.  If you can track multiple cycles of resource production, you can watch trends and improve processes.

There are some crops that are much more profitable for farmers than others.  Corn, for example.  But these crops strip a lot of nutrients out of the soil – such that, over time, crop yields will diminish and chemical fertilizer costs will spike. 

However, different crops will absorb or replace different nutrients in soil.  Other crops, like peas and beans, put nitrogen back into the soil.  By rotating between different types of crops, farmers can keep investing nutrients into the soil, which in turn produces robust crop yields.

Money can work the same way.  If a person receives a lump sum of money, like the lottery or an inheritance, they can invest that money into stocks or other markets.  That money can then earn a return in interest or dividends, which can grow the original amount of the money.

Likewise, the same principle can be applied to social groups and businesses.  When members of a group invest time, effort, and money into the group, it will grow and attract more members.  The group can then do more things, which creates more value and opportunity for members.  A business can invest in employees, helping them become more skilled, which in turn makes them more valuable and productive to the business.

We can see other species in nature that practice farming.  For example, leaf-cutter ants will cultivate fungi on the leaves that they cut, which provides nutrition.  And damselfish will cultivate sensitive kinds of algae, even to the point of aggressively protecting their little algae farms from invaders.

It comes back to cooperative vs competitive

Like many natural power dynamics, mining vs farming comes back to the old dynamic of cooperation vs competition.  In a cooperative arrangement, we all contribute and work together so we all benefit.  In a competitive arrangement, we compete with each other and the winner gets the most benefit.

I mean, I get it.  Competition is relatively easy, and cooperation is hard and complicated.  And one of the cooperative socioeconomic models we have is called socialism, which has become the great boogeyman of the West.

But hear me out.

In any system, there are going to be individuals who want to take more than they contribute.  And that can look like a lazy twenty-something sitting in his mom’s basement, unemployed and watching porn while his mom cleans up after him.  Or it can look like a pagan group where four people bring all the food, and the other twenty just bring an appetite.  Or it can look like stockholders and C-suite employees raiding an employee pension fund. Or even a mining company digging up a bunch of gold and leaving behind a bunch of arsenic-contaminated soil.

In a cooperative/farming model, freeloaders are fairly limited in their ability to amass resources.  Those twenty pagans with appetites are going to have a hard cap on the amount of food they take home – there’s only so much food at the potluck.

In a competitive/mining model, freeloaders have a much less restrictive limit on the amount of resources they can amass.  By leveraging their power of persuasion or physical strength, they can protect their acquisition streams and artificially force other competitors into accepting lower value for exchanges.

Neither side is all sunshine and roses

There are definitely some drawbacks to the cooperative model.  Like, who adjudicates fairness?  What’s the incentive to work harder than your neighbor?  How do we deal with those who refuse to contribute?

And the competitive model isn’t all bad either.  Competition forces individuals to grow, improve, and innovate.  It tends to reward harder work, and weeds out those who make bad decisions or can’t adapt with changing circumstances.

But I think that a farming model incorporates a healthy dynamic between those two modes of power.  A farmer doesn’t just let any plant grow in his field; he removes the plants that aren’t productive, so that all the water and nutrients go to the crop he wants.  And if he notices one plant has bigger or tastier fruits, he might save the seeds from it to plant next season, leveraging the power of competition to grow more and tastier food.

Mining, on the other hand, often uses highly toxic and destructive tools and processes to extract value.  Arsenic is used for mining gold.  Lead is a byproduct of silver mining.  Coal mining causes health problems in workers.  Some of the worst environmental disasters have come from mining operations – both in the damage to ecosystems of non-human people, and to actual people who work or live near the mines. 

It seems that the process of extracting value for a very few individuals – like the owners and stockholders of a mining company – funnels a great amount of wealth into very few hands.  And those people tend not to want to pay any costs they don’t have to, let alone invest in any long-term sustainability.  So mining companies have an incentive to reduce costs by any means, from costs to workers (in wages and healthcare), to costs to communities (toxic dumping, destruction of ecosystems), to all sorts of other costs.  Mining companies are also incentivized to divert those costs to anyone else they can – hence the EPA having to fund massive cleanup operations (superfund sites) after a corporation extracts all the value and leaves a toxic wasteland.

Practical considerations and final thoughts

I think it’s worth looking at the relationships we have in our lives, and categorizing them as mining or farming relationships. 

And I think that works on a lot of levels.

Is your marriage a farm, where everyone works together to bring in a healthy crop of children, wealth, and joy?  Or is it a mine, where an overseer sits at his desk eating lobster while everyone else works triple shifts and eats stale bread?

Is your Pagan group one where everyone (or at least most everyone) volunteers and helps set up and clean up?  Or is it a group where people expect to go for free food and to have their hand held through a ritual that someone else wrote and performed?

When we’re thinking about celebrating a holiday – do we organize it in a way that invites and supports contributing and benefiting from the event?  Or do we use the Hallmark approach, where we use the holiday as a way to give attendees as little as possible in exchange for as much money as we can get?

I think there’s a balance to be found between cooperation and competition, and that’s on each of us to figure out for ourselves.  But it’s worth our time to think about our relationships in the context of mining and farming.  I think a lot of us, if we’re honest, could be better about investing time and energy into our relationships. 

And I don’t just mean relationships with human people.  I mean, start thinking of all the things around you as if they are people too – plants, animals, your home, your car, etc. – and how you’re maintaining those relationships too.

Thoughts?  Email me at dmkoffer at gmail dot com – I’m curious to hear what you think!