The Return of Surplus

Being the huge fan of farm economics that I am, and being decidedly in favor of individual freedom and thinking the best of my fellow man and accepting, as I do, that the Earth is not just a place to put my stuff but is, instead, a treasure to be…erm…treasured, and because a friend recently emailed me about the questionable sanity of male bloggers with oddly disjointed posts, I offer you this bit of self-indulgence. I present to you…

The Return of Surplus (available in HD)

Surplus is coming back. Let’s return to the world of plenty. My favorite college class was taught by a long-braided hippie lady who seemingly always wore a green dress and was happy to let me be wrong about whatever as long as I could back up my position. She taught a class titled “Nature and the American Experience” or some such nonsense. (Have I ever mentioned that I have a generally negative view of college for unlicensed professions (or of gov’t licensing of professionals? (come on…at least I’m giving you something to think about.))) Anyway, this instructor, whose name has evaporated from memory (Dr.? Ms.? Jan …something?), could not have been nicer and left me with a positive impression of what a hippie person could, and in some ways should be. Julie and I aspire to be similarly accepting of others. And we don’t use shampoo. And we compost our wastes. And we have a big garden. And I have a beard…for now. And I’m generally against war…especially when the warring party considers the best defense to be a good offense. Or when “war” is practiced by hitting wedding parties with missiles. Our real-life hippie cred is way above average.

So anyway, I propose that surplus is coming back into style. It’s what the cool kids are doing. The hipsters. To be clear, I was planting trees before planting trees was cool. Not that it matters. A planted tree is a planted tree, cool or not. And my beard has nothing to do with being a hippie (I’m really a lousy hippie) and nothing to do with hunting (I’m a lousy hunter) and nothing to do with hipster culture (hipsters should laugh ironically at that) and everything to do with having been the hairiest kid in school…being called “Wolfman” at age 12 because I had the beginnings of a beard then.

How am I doing on the disjointed thing? Does this qualify as questionably sane?

There are three permaculture ethics and depending on the bent of the author writing about them you’ll see a different wording for each. The more libertarian writers (you know, leave people alone, let them do what they do as long as they don’t violate the rights of others) tend to write them this way:
1. Care for the Earth
2. Care for People
3. Return of Surplus

The more totalitarian authors (the kind who like to tell other people what is best for them…because it’s for the children) write it out this way:
1. Earth Care
2. People Care
3. Fair Share

Isn’t that nice? It rhymes and it makes us feel good! It’s fair!

Obviously I think there’s a big difference between the two. A big difference. And I’m going to pick on the kind of person who thinks the world would be better if he could just impose his will on others. If you are one of those people, I respect your opinions but I secretly think you’re a tool. If we interpret “Fair Share” as freely giving resources to others we have made Ethics 2 and 3 redundant. I believe the ethics are (or should be) distinct. Hence the “Return of Surplus” in the title.

Rather than focus on how we can feel good about giving apples away to people who don’t have apples (which may or may not be worth doing but is covered by Ethic #2, not a part of this post) we need to focus on returning surplus back into the system. Pretend it is a closed loop. A finite Earth. That when you throw plastic away it doesn’t magically go away. It just gets stored somewhere else. Forever. When you sit on your tookus doing nothing you are taking from the system without returning to it. Just converting oxygen into CO2 and food into…well, not …food…for humans. You are consuming resources and returning nothing of value.

So what do we do with our surplus plastic? I don’t know. Try not to buy stuff wrapped in plastic.

But let’s back off of the Captain Planet message and focus on the farm for a minute. The farm is a closed loop. Cows don’t produce plastic. Cows don’t eat plastic (in fact, those Arkansas tumbleweeds are quite dangerous for cows). We capture sunlight and rain while using plants and fungus to mine minerals out of the soil. Our management of the cows takes full advantage of the stored energy and nutrients while leaving a residual of plant material, manure and disturbance to enhance future forage growth. It’s all an ongoing cycle of transition from one state to the next. The only thing in true surplus is the sunlight and we try to make the most of it. There is no surplus manure. That’s food for worms and dung beetles and fly larvae. There are no surplus flies. Those are food for birds and frogs and ???. If I sell the manure, the hay, the maggots or the worms I have disrupted some portion of the cycle. Somewhat. When properly managed, the relentless onslaught of sunlight brings a level of abundance. We’ll sell surplus cattle to keep the system in balance.

We have removed – not returned – some surplus by selling cattle. So what is all this “return” nonsense?

I have a distinct lack of cash. No surplus cash is available (or ever will be…I promise!). I take surplus cattle and exchange them for needed cash. The cash is returned to the farm. Maybe in the form of fencing materials. Maybe in the form of Irish whiskey to help me cope with the lack of fencing materials. Some may think any Irish whiskey is surplus Irish whiskey. I disagree. There are things we enjoy just for the sake of enjoyment. Things that keep us on the farm. Things that make the back-breaking, heart-wrenching work more bearable. Not just booze (though that is nice) but books and comfy chairs and new boots. Things that weren’t sourced on the farm but grant us a measure of sustainability by keeping us fat and happy. Because if we weren’t fat and happy we wouldn’t be doing this. And sometimes the whiskey helps. Only sometimes. I promise. (But sometimes it really helps. A lot.)

And being fat and happy is the goal. Heck, Crevecoeur wrote about it nearly 250 years ago as he was defining an American in Letter III (A book I read in the aforementioned hippie college class at least 18 years ago):

Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle. The Americans were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of population which has ever appeared, and which will hereafter become distinct by the power of the different climates they inhabit. The American ought therefore to love this country much better than that wherein either he or his forefathers were born. Here the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement? Wives and children, who before in vain demanded of him a morsel of bread, now, fat and frolicsome, gladly help their father to clear those fields whence exuberant crops are to arise to feed and to clothe them all; without any part being claimed, either by a despotic prince, a rich abbot, or a mighty lord. I lord religion demands but little of him; a small voluntary salary to the minister, and gratitude to God; can he refuse these? The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. –This is an American.

“…fat and Frolicsome, gladly help their father”. Sweet! Men – Americans – no longer suffer from a surplus of forced free time. They are rewarded for their labor! Well, that was the American envisioned by Crèvecœur. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if that every really came to be. Or if it was and was lost. Or if America is a place or an idea. Or if it is required of an American to live in the United States. Or if the United States has become increasingly welcoming or increasingly hostile toward Americans.

So that brings us to surpluses the farm can absorb. The farm can absorb all the manure my cows can drop. No problem. The farm can absorb all the labor my wife, children and I can spare. Further, the farm can absorb all the labor I can hire.

So let’s really address surpluses. It is not outside of the scope of imagination that I could grow more apples than I could eat. More, even, than I could feed to pigs. A true surplus. I have several options available to me. First, I could press a portion of the apples to make hard cider…making the farming more bearable…and the winters warmer. Possibly leading to additional children. Bonus. But let’s imagine that I have so many apples that I can make so much hard cider I couldn’t possibly begin to drink it all. Now, like the surplus cattle, I need to move these surpluses off of the farm. Unlike cattle, surplus apples are available in small quantities. It would be entirely possible for me to trade my surplus hard cider and exchange it for something you have in small surplus. And if you own nothing I suppose you might have time in surplus. And it just so happens that my farm can absorb all the time we can throw at it. There is always more work to do!

This is radically different than charity (and we make major allowances for charity, see Ethic #2), it is radically different than “Fair Share”. It really is fair. “I have this. You have that. Would you like to trade?” That’s very different than saying, “Don’t you feel guilty that you have so much when so many have so little?” Nobody has to hang their head. Nobody is a loser. There are no greedy bastards. No guy with all the apples. No guy with all the free time. It is a mutually beneficial convergence of surpluses. My surplus apples are being returned to the farm…whatever the form! Return of surplus.

Dad was recently approached about buying hay for a woman who keeps horses. She was turned in (to the horse feeding police?) because her horses were reportedly malnourished. The vet who examined them found that one was fine but not fat (horses around here are all fat), the other was old. You know…old. As in, may be lacking teeth and having a hard time maintaining weight because it is…old. But they’re collecting hay for her anyway. Grass grows in surplus in our part of the world. Pond edges, field edges the front yard (yeah), alfalfa that couldn’t be cut because it got too cold to cure and the always present roadsides. How about this, horse lady? How about you cancel your Satellite TV, you put your horse on a lead rope and you go soak up your excess time soaking up excess forage? You, the horse and the grass will all be better off for it. I mean, if you have Satellite TV and horses you can’t possibly need a share of my production/labor/assets/whatever. That doesn’t seem fair as I have neither Satellite TV nor horse…nor desire for either. But you and your equine can achieve an equitable trade for your free time and solve your feeding issues. Or just shoot/sell the dang horses and give yourself more completely to the gods of television.

Now I have ticked off totalitarian warmongers (republican or democrat), hippies, hipsters, hunters, horse-owners, people who value sitting on their couch, people who still believe the myth of the college degree and 90% of permaculturists. How’s that for a self-indulgent, questionably sane, rambling post?

If you are interested, the books I remember from that class were:
Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches from Eighteenth-Century America
A Sand County Almanac
A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee

Go ahead. Check those out from the library, discuss them with a group of peers and give yourself 4 imaginary credits toward a fancy piece of paper. It may help you make a lot of money someday and costs much less than similar imaginary credits from our competitors.

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16 thoughts on “The Return of Surplus

  1. I spent four years and tons of money moving further away from knowing anything important about life and questioning things that didn’t matter than any other time in my life. Every important book I’ve read or life lesson I’ve learned came from outside academia and despite the values the profs tried to instill.

    Working on a “socialist” farm in NY state as an intern for an Ivy League educated couple gave me a great education about elitism, hypocrisy and the intolerance of people who put their faith in government policies.

    Much to think about here–great post.

      • If I can get the kids to count them out, by the head. But if the ducks get involved, the whole deal is off. I think you will find, if you’ve not already, that a large portion of the homesteading/small farm resurgence population is of like mind with you.

        • I have seen fly vacs. That would be a way to get a large quantity in a hurry.

          That would be a tremendous amount of protein. Maybe we knock them out with carbon monoxide so we can feed them to the chickens…hmmm.

          Thanks for the support.

        • We payed the children 5 cents a head for our flies. They had to keep them on their own napkin to get paid. During busy fly seasons it changed to 3 for a nickel.

  2. It seems that if you “use” everything to its end; be it cows, manure or flies; you have returned that item to its proper place. It is not surplus in a sense, but just in another form that will be changed in the future.

    I would argue that college and strange classes with stranger teachers lay the foundation for our thoughts, choices and actions later. I’m old enough that I could get through college with a degree at a time when it could be accomplished cheaply and without debt if you were willing to live very frugally ($200 a month) and work. I remember hearing Ray Bradbury speak and describe his “college” of going to the library each day after work and reading for four years. That was during the Great Depression. And no, I’m not that old. If your job isn’t degree dependent, then reading can lay your foundation. Kind of like, “We have two lives… the life we learn with and the life we live after that. Suffering is what brings us towards happiness.” Bernard Malamud in “The Natural.”

    • The thing about college is that it allows you to learn the importance of reading. Right out of high school, I didn’t understand the need to read. I’m not sure HFS did either. Somewhere we each reached an ability to read well and process information. The ability to write well also came later, but I did write some in high school. My point is, I don’t think there is ever a surplus of education and some of us begin our journey toward it at different times in different environments. P.S. My college class was Biology, Society and the Environment – probably to liberal for some now.

      • I’m down. And I’m not necessarily meaning to rant against college. I have strong, serious concerns about the wisdom of borrowing $20k each year for what has turned into 5 years to earn a degree in literature. There are cheaper ways to enjoy literature and still earn the $40k average starting salary.

        Or how about this? Take a year or two between HS and college to work and travel. Go find out what kinds of jobs you are qualified for at your education and experience level and use college to propel you further. The non-traditional students I went to school with had purpose…direction. They weren’t just “Borrowing the cheapest money they would ever borrow.” What nonsense. What a waste.

        • I know college was a life-changing opportunity for you mom. But as we discuss this you have to look at the real numbers involved. When you were at SIUC (1988?) in-state tuition was $1,600. Today it is $11,500. That’s a life-changing amount of money. What happens if a student changes majors and earns an extra year or two? Not only is that an extra $12,000, it’s an extra year of not earning a median HS diploma salary of $30k. That means 5 years of college costs you not just the $60k in school fees (and we haven’t added in books!) but also the opportunity cost of $150k in earnings…additions to your future social security. Or your retirement funds.

          You would be right to suggest that lifetime earnings are negatively impacted by the lack of a degree but since wages haven’t risen in proportion to SIUC educational fees listed above, maybe we should explore alternatives to college. Or at least focus our attention on degrees that are in demand. We also haven’t addressed the burden of loan repayment while working an entry-level job and attempting to establish a household which, I can tell you from personal experience, is not an easy burden.

        • I also think it is appropriate to respond, once again, that college certainly did impact me positively but you and dad had a much greater impact on me. You and dad were always readers. That made a difference. Well, that and hours and hours stuck in hotel rooms and airports while traveling for my first job.

        • As a college graduate at 39 I understand what you are saying. I now work in two organizations as a volunteer to raise money for scholarships. I believe learning how to learn is the most important lesson. Way too many young people can’t realize their potential because they can’t figure out how to learn.

          • Couple of things. What is public school for? Shouldn’t we be teaching people to learn over the course of 12 years? Maybe you could lobby for more money for schools to address the lack of learning…but more money doesn’t seem to be solving many problems. Maybe there are more effective ways to pursue the skill of learning.

            Second, the college comment was the smallest portion of this post but that was the comment that caught your eye. That’s fine. Just know I didn’t put it there to pick on you. I’ll try to say this clearly, without humor or emotion of any sort.

            I have to make sure college is an appropriate use of resources in our children’s lives before sending them there. Maybe college is a great way to spend 4 years and $100k. Maybe we can get a better value for our dollar abroad. Maybe we can get a better value for our dollar at a trade school. Maybe we can get a better value for our dollar elsewhere. I don’t believe college is an automatic choice. It is a choice worth considering.

            I don’t think more schooling is the solution for all problems.

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