The Do Nothing Revolution
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?