Over the course of the last four centuries, the Western World has created a set of “unshakable” principles concerning the natural world: that nature is just another machine, that animals don’t feel and do not have souls, that plants and animals aren’t sentient. Descartes, writing in the 1600s during the early rise of mechanization, was one of the first to make this claim. He posited that animals are mechanical automata, that is, they are beings without souls, feelings, or pain. These same ideas were not limited to non-human life; we see the same kind of thinking being applied to justify slavery, genocide, colonialization, and a list of other atrocities. When we combine this kind of thinking with the economic ideas of “growth at all costs” and “efficiency”, we end up in the dystopian fiction we find ourselves living in right now. I want to take some time to explore these concepts today and how we might think through them, and move beyond them, as part of our own nature-centered spiritual practices.
Perhaps we think ourselves evolved beyond such ideas in the 21st century, but a look at basic industrialized animal husbandry and farming practices tells a different tale. These same underlying ideas that allowed Descartes and his contemporaries to strip the enchantment from the world and encourage the mechanized reality we live in are still very much pervasive in our society. Efficiency and “savings” allow most people to tolerate factory farms and look the other way over animal testing. Everything moves very fast. If we can simply say animals have no souls, no pain, and are essentially living automatons, it makes it easier to operate mechanized systems surrounding their raising, slaughter, and/or harvest (meat, eggs, honey, fur, leather etc). Unfortunately, I see this mentality strongly even among my neighbors here in rural Western PA. It is hard to see how “farm animals” are treated and conceived as simply objects that are meant to serve a purpose and be discarded. For example, earlier this year we were planning on getting some fiber goats as pets and companions and to help us clear areas of our land that were full of brush. After hearing that some of the plants on our land might be toxic to goats, I had called and talked with a PA state extension officer to learn more, and he told me that many of the plants on our land (Wild Cherry, bracken fern, pokeberry) were indeed deadly. He suggested that rather than buy “nice goats”, I go to the local livestock auction and buy “junk goats” which could clear the land for a few months before getting sick and dying of the poisonous plants. I told him that it was abhorrent to think of doing such a thing, and he said people did it here all the time. Needless to say, we opted for geese and ducks as pets over the goats.
One of the best examples of this disastrous thinking–and people’s sheer excitement about it–can be found in the 2017 invention of the “flow hive” that touts mechanization and efficiency. I wasn’t even going to write about this, thinking that the craze about it had finally died down. But the darned thing just won’t go away. A video of an advertisement for a “Flow Hive” keeps appearing on my social media feed, shared eagerly by non-beekeeping friends who think that I’ll be so excited about it because they know I keep bees. It just happened again last week and my friend was quite surprised by my response. I am not in love with the flow hive. As a druid and someone practicing sacred beekeeping, the flow hive saddens me and hurts my heart. I’ve been hesitant to write about it, because good analyses of why the Flow Hive is a bad idea have circulated from various beekeeping sites, and I didn’t think I had a lot to add to this conversation. But upon reflection, I do have something to add from a spiritual and relationship-building perspective, and certainly, from the perspective of this broader conversation about cultivating a relationship to the living earth.
The flow hive, and many other things like it, represent the mechanization and industrialization of nature in the name of efficiency and productivity. What do I mean by mechanization? Common definitions of mechanization are simple: the process of converting work done by hand or with animals to doing work using machinery. A textbook definition of the machine is, simply, an apparatus that has several interconnecting parts and that use mechanical power to complete a task. Words surrounding machines often have to do with efficiency; in its entry under mechanization, for example, Wikipedia shares some delightful statistics about the inefficiency of humans (1-5% efficient) compared to internal combustion engines (20%), diesel engines (60%) or other methods (up to 90%). Here, these definitions suggest that the goal of doing work is to get it done as efficiently, that is, as easily and without additional labor, as possible. Efficiency, or getting something done quickly and with minimal effort, is an idea that Wendell Berry also takes to task in his Unsettling of America. The language of efficiency pervades our thinking, clouds or judgment, and ties us even more directly to the machine.
The assumption underlying the flow hive is simple: a more efficient beehive is a better one because it requires less effort and doesn’t require as much interaction with the bees. An efficient beehive will save us time and effort. If I can simply flip a switch and get the honey to flow out, that is such a better experience than having to pull frames. Uh, yeah, sure it is. When I argue against the flow hive, I’m attacked on several angles: I’m a Luddite and hate technology and progress; I am resistant to change, or I’m old fashioned. My response is that I’m a druid. There is something abhorrent about flipping a switch and turning my bees into a factory.
To understand why this whole idea is so abhorrent to me as a druid, we have to get to the goals and purposes for beekeeping, or any other practice that we do as human beings. What is the point of beekeeping, or doing any other work? Is it just to have an end product (honey) or is it also about the journey? The incredible smell of the hive as you open it, the observation of the bees in their work, the relationship that you can create with the bees, seeing bees in all stages of life, seeing the queen laying her eggs, watching the workers take care of larvae and pupae, seeing the wax exuding from the backs of the workers–these are all experiences that I treasure. Interaction and connection are two of the main reasons I keep bees–these things that have no price tag and they require only my time, expertise, and effort to experience. None of these experiences have to do with efficiency, productivity, or getting honey. These experiences have to do with the sacred relationship that a beekeeper develops with her beehive and the joy at studying and learning from the bees, who are true alchemists.
The flow hive, by its very mechanistic nature, not only disrupts the sacred interaction between the beekeeper and the bee, it does so at the name of efficiency. I see it no different from the other kinds of disruptions that humans often face when using machines to tame nature: you can’t really appreciate the beautiful spring day outside if 30 of your neighbors are running gas-guzzling machines all across their lawns. Its simply not the same to take a drive through the woods as opposed to a walk–the machine limits that interaction. Machines may be more efficient, but that’s the only thing they offer us, and efficiency is over-rated.
Another aspect of mechanization, which John Michael Greer writes about is the myth of power. In his “Myth of the Machine” post on the former Archdruid Report, he explores the relationship between machines and power, and suggests that part of the allure of machines in modern industrialized society is the allure of power. There is something, for modern humans, inherently appealing about the modern gizmos and gadgets that “do so much.” New products are sold on this basis: the new iPhone does more than the old iPhone, so of course, you want one so that you can do more with it. Perhaps a more accurate advertisement would be that the new iPhone allows you as a human being to do less; that with each new device, the quest for efficiency becomes more complete.
By turning a simple switch of this flow hive, the beekeeper gains an immense amount of power over the bees. While honey harvesting used to be a careful dance between bee and beekeeper, allowing the beekeeper not only to check on the health of the hive and its honey reserves, honey harvesting is now a simplified mechanistic process. The dance of the honey harvest, the careful interactions, and care, are replaced by the machine. Who knows what is happening in the hive? The flow hive way tells you all that matters is what comes out–the honey itself.
But also by turning a simple switch, the beekeeper doesn’t need to have the skill to engage in that careful dance. The machine itself does the work, and the knowledge necessary to successfully harvest honey from a hive is rendered obsolete. By flipping the honey switch, we’ve traded our skilled labor, which involves paying attention to the hive’s disposition, engaging in multiple kinds of hand-eye coordination, and using wisdom just to gain a product that flows out of the hive and into your jar. All of the sense of craft, skill, and knowledge is lost. Yes, doing it the old way takes more time–but the trade to efficiency doesn’t seem worth it. This is especially true because mechanization and efficiency, ultimately, means a loss of care and a loss of connection. When we stop opening up the beehive, we fail to see the magic and beauty and sacredness of the work of the bees. When we just turn a switch and pour out honey, an essential quality–care and interaction–has been stripped from the process. We have traded ease-of-use for care.
We can use this same kind of argument in all sorts of ways: when we stop producing our own food, we lose the magic of it, but also the connection to the earth by producing it. The more that machines do for us, the more efficient our lives become, the less whole they really are. We trade our ability to engage fully as people with the world and instead, become dependent on the machine–in the same way a new beekeeper is dependent on the switch in the flow hive for their honey. In “Tool-Users vs. Homo Sapiens and the Megamachine” Louis Mumford writes of the end result of this process, “the beleaguered– even ‘obsolete’–individual would be entirely de-skilled, reduced to a passive, inert, trivial accessory to the machine.” Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it? Isn’t this what is happening in today’s society? If we let machines and technology do everything for us, we are left with nothing but the ability to consume. No sets of core skills, and no connection to the living earth, all is done for us in the name of efficiency.
Its actually pretty entertaining to see news article after news article claiming things that anyone who spends time meditating in nature already knows: that all living beings have soul, methods of communication, and spirit. It doesn’t take science to tell me as a druid that trees communicate when they communicate with me daily. It doesn’t take science to tell me that my chickens and guineas have their own unique communication styles and are deeply aware of their surroundings. The myth that Decorate and so many others have propagated–that nature is a machine–is simply a smokescreen to take advantage of nature in the most abhorrent ways possible.
I write all of this because I think that these are some of the underlying ideas that we have to tackle–as druids–to really begin a paradigm shift. Some technologies are really helpful to humanity (like say, basic refrigeration and washing machines. I really appreciate the work that both do). But many technologies and mechanizations take us further and further away from our ability to connect deeply with nature both by disconnecting us from the source of life (food, shelter, etc) and deskilling us. And at some point, we have to face the fact that we are likely better without a lot of these things and find ways of balancing our lives with useful technologies vs. those that actively harm us and our planet.
Since this has been mostly an opinion piece, I’ll end with a few takeaways that are useful practices to start these shifts:
- Take one aspect of your life that you depend on industrialization or consumerism to fulfill and learn how to produce it yourself. As a few examples, I declared tomato independence many years ago, and make it a point to grow and preserve the tomato needs of my family for the year. I also have recently been taking up fire-starting technologies using material from my land and also learning how to make my own paints. While these may seem like small steps, they are highly fulfilling and empowering.
- Look for industries that have the most egregious issues (like clothing, food) and try to make better choices, informed choices, choices that are rooted in care rather than efficiency and cost. You can’t often make every good choice due to the costs, but you can choose one or two areas to focus on.
- Attend an earth skills gathering, like Mountaincraft or find a local Bushcraft school. You can find a list here. I attended my first gathering (Mountaincraft) earlier this year and was amazed by the number of skills and friendship offered at these places. Since then, I’ve returned to the North American Bushcraft School for other classes (I was just there yesterday making leather bags!) The Earth Skills community is teaching and modeling a more healthy paradigm and relationship with the living earth–and this kind of thing is a great deal of fun.
- Examine your own assumptions and start checking those assumptions in your interaction with regards to things like growth, efficiency, etc. As I shared before on this blog, mindset shifts are the keys to everything else: if we shift our mindsets, we can change the world. These are insidious things that are rooted deeply in our subconscious. Bringing them to a conscious place, examining them, and ridding oneself of them takes effort–but it is so worth it. Surrounding yourself with people who are doing this same work really helps.
- Have technology-free days where you embrace the darkness, spend time in nature, learn to make things slowly and by hand, and generally disconnect and allow yourself to simply be, un-impeded, with nature. You’ll be glad you did!
This planet is being eradicated by the kinds of thinking and actions I’ve examined in this post. I’m growing tired of inaction and tired of watching the thing that I hold sacred, and that I love, be under such threat. If we change mindsets, we change the world.