The Do Nothing Revolution

» February 20th, 2013

For decades upon decades Masanobu Fukuoka lived on a remote hillside of a Japanese island and ate what he produced. Without tillage or chemicals (even organic), he grew rice, barley, a range of indigenous vegetables, orchard fruit, the occasional egg, and the even less occasional piece of fish. His methods were so hands-off he called it “do nothing agriculture.”

His approach to farming was inseparable from his approach to life, one that he had a penchant for encapsulating in zen-like aphorisms. As he explained in his charming manifesto, The One Straw Revolution (1978; reprint 2009), “The purpose of a natural diet is not to create knowledgeable people who can give sound explanations and skillfully select among the various foods, but to create unknowing people who take food without consciously making decisions.”

Whoa. This remark gave me pause. As someone who spends a considerable amount of time thinking obsessively about food—not to mention advising people how to choose— it was a little unnerving to have this man of obvious wisdom and intelligence suggest that the path to culinary enlightenment came through “unknowing” our food.

The idea here is that if we would just chill out and stop trying to become all knowing we would actually know a lot more than we think we do (readers of Michael Polanyi take note). Rather than (agri)culture becoming something to which we contribute and consume it would be something we become.  As Fukuoka writes, “Culture is usually though of as something created, maintained, and developed by humanity’s efforts alone. But culture always originates in the partnership between man and nature.”

It’s easy to dismiss Fukuoka as a sort of wayward village eccentric. To be sure, the man is eccentric, indulging as he does in vatic utterances such as “If we eradicate the false conception of nature, I believe the root of the world’s disorder will disappear” (clearly this man has never seen my office). But he’s also making a trenchant critique of contemporary culture and the frenzied behavior it generates. In so doing, he’s also offering the activist the chance to consider a new perspective.

A recurring theme in The One Straw Revolution is the importance of doing nothing. Yes, labor is, I suppose, the ultimate basis of culture. But that doesn’t mean it has to dominate it, nor does it mean that we cannot—as the only species capable of doing so—make a conscious choice to spend our afternoons staring at a sycamore tree, writing ideas into a blog post, or reading novels rather than working to produce goods and services that, for the most part, have little meaningful bearing on our lives. We are, to put it differently, the only species that has made work a counterproductive endeavor. We can change that.

One of the many paradoxes in Fukuoka’s book is the fact that he demonstrates absolutely zero interest is stressing a plant-based diet while, at the same time, essentially living his life around one.  For Fukuoka, eating really is an unthinking decision that, as a direct consequence of the circumstances that structure his life, is deeply rooted in compassion not just for animals but for the earth as a whole. This fortuitous convergence is made possible because he works hard not to work. He’s happy to sit on his hillside and admire the natural world he feels increasingly at one with. Systematically slaughtering animals, much like trashing the soil with chemicals, simply doesn’t fit into this simple but powerful framework.

Regrettably, the culture in which we now live punishes the desire to do “nothing.”  Our commercial driven, materialistic mentality means that to be unthinking about anything, but especially food, leads to the opposite of what Fukuoka intended:  suffering, violence, and exploitation. Worse, it leads to the rationalization of these habits. The thinking vegan looks into this abyss of power, hierarchy, and abuse and holds his placard of resistance high. “Don’t eat animals,” we insist. I wonder, after contemplating a one straw revolution, if we should think seriously about appending to that message another request: “and then do nothing.” Fukuoka wrote, “In farming there is little that cannot be eliminated.” What if this were true for life in general?

tomorrow: Morrissey


4 Responses to The Do Nothing Revolution

  1. mark gillono says:

    “It’s easy to dismiss Fukuoka as a sort of wayward village eccentric. To be sure, the man is eccentric, indulging as he does in vatic utterances such as “If we eradicate the false conception of nature, I believe the root of the world’s disorder will disappear”

    actually, Fukuoka’s concept makes perfect sense-nature is not a chaotic mess which needs the human race to manage it. humans need to stop seeing ourselves as outside of nature and superior to ever other species, and stop trying to control everything. many other visionaries came to the same conclusion. Einstein said something similar with this quote “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us the ‘Universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

    J. Howard Moore had this to say on the subject “Man is not the pedestalled creature pictured by his imagination – a being glittering with prerogatives, and towering apart from and above all other beings. He is a pain-shunning, pleasure-seeking, death-dreading organism, differing in particulars, but not in kind, from the pain-shunning, pleasure-seeking, death-dreading organisms below and around him.”

    and finally, Ernest Bell said “Man is an almost hopelessly conceited animal, this pygmy! He thinks that not only the earth with all that it contains was created for his benefit, but also the sky, the sun, and indeed, the whole universe, as far as he has any knowledge of it, were designed for his purposes and welfare.”

  2. AMarie says:

    I have been thinking for awhile about opacity and nothingness in relation to education, identity-formation in the US, and nonhuman animals. I appreciate your thoughtful articulation of “do nothing”; it’s a shame “know nothing” refers back to a bunch of anti-Irish xenophobes, because it could otherwise serve as a useful corollary to “do nothing.”

  3. Nadine says:

    I’ve actively (somewhat ironically) pursued a life of “doing nothing”, but to me taking the time to immerse into the beingness of the experience of life doesn’t mean remaining unaware or uncaring. We each have the power in our daily decisions and actions to form an input into the collective consciousness of humanity, so I take that input seriously – i.e. not owning a car, being vegan, living simply and reducing my consumption. If we were to shift the entirety of our system to a new paradigm, new economic system and a new social order that reflected the values espoused by Fukuoka and others, each person could embrace “do nothing” and it would be okay. I don’t think we are at that point though as having a world of unconscious consumers is leading to our planet’s destruction.

  4. Mountain says:

    Beautiful post!

    I now know what to call our style of farming. We aren’t truly “do nothing,” since the proximity of humans requires us to build fences, but we are as close as we know how to get. Hopefully, in the future, we can learn more ways to do nothing.

    I also liked your use of “vatic.” I think Fukuoka’s utterance, about false conceptions of nature, is incredibly powerful. Too often– whether in government, business, or farming– we ask: what more do we need to do? We should first ask: what are we doing that we don’t need to do? Identify the extraneous, and stop doing it. Get the system right, and then do nothing.

    On that note, I think it’s a safe bet that your office is a false conception of nature, and is needlessly complicated. Of course, running is the same way. You run best when you strip your running of everything extraneous, and just do what you need to do to propel yourself forward. “Do nothing” running. No doubt, it’s true of life as well.

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