Reaping Without Sowing: Thoughts for the Dark Time of the Year

Warning: this post is pretty low on the Christmas Cheer Index.

I cringe when I hear the word “harvest” being used in a variety of sneaky ways, the primary one being a benign-sounding substitute for “kill.” Right now I am listening to a fellow speaking earnestly in favour of sports hunting of polar bears (a threatened species), uttering that word three or four times in one sentence. Listening uncritically, one might almost think that being “harvested” is good for the bears. The same word is often applied to cutting down trees, as in logging or lumbering. Related to the latter is the concept of “managed forests.”

“Manage,” is another benign-sounding word, behind which lurks “exploit.”

“Harvest” derives ultimately from an old Indo-European word for gathering, plucking or cutting, as is done to crops or to the fruits of wild plants. Aside from hunting and gathering societies, it has generally been applied to cultivated crops.

“Manage,” meaning “to control” or “to handle,” derives from the same root as Latin “manus” — hand.

Both these words hark back to a time when crops were planted and gathered by hand, a process involving physical exertion, hardship and sweat. That is much less the case with present-day mechanized operations intended to supply “products” to an international marketplace. Hunting, too, was a risky business without modern firearms, and certainly nothing like present-day industrial meat production.

Most of us consume the gifts of the earth without paying for them — paying in the sense of physical discomfort and effort, even suffering, because we are largely removed from the processes involved in bringing them to us. Like wealth, suffering is unequally distributed in this world, concentrated in places that have been excessively managed, their resources harvested to bring convenience, comfort and delight to the inhabitants of the fortunate “first world.” And a good deal of suffering is experienced by the creatures entrained in the machine that is industrial agriculture, a fact that most of us (myself included) are happy to ignore when sitting down to eat something roasted.

This is a complex issue and I have no answers to offer, except this: we humans need to feel reverence for the earth. We can’t survive without it. When people go into outer space, they do so inside a facsimile of earth. Despite our cosmic aspirations, we are creatures of earth. We satisfy our appetites, physical and otherwise, by drawing upon earth’s resources, often with negative consequences to other creatures or to the earth itself. At the very least we must acknowledge that.

Happy holidays to all!

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