by Carmel Richardson

(Source: The American Conservative)

We are once again trying to discover if green asceticism is possible. In order to comply with the European Union’s climate rules, the Dutch government has elected to buy up to 3,000 small farms across the country for the explicit purpose of shutting them down. The government has promised to pay “well over” the value of the farms, but if the farmers decline the government’s offer, the purchase will become compulsory. Stifling the world’s second largest agricultural economy, the decision will effectively starve many bodies to feed the soul of the global climate agenda.

Though a small country, the Netherlands emits more nitrous oxide and ammonia than any other E.U. member, and consequently has become a target for climate activists. Back in 2018, the European Court of Justice ordered the Netherlands to address the emissions, most of which governing bodies have attributed to livestock. Since then, the government has passed a variety of plans to reduce nitrogen emissions by 50 percent, including lowering speed limits, putting a hold on new building projects, and ultimately, the forced buyout of farms.

The country is home to nearly 54,000 agricultural businesses. Axing 3,000 of those, though not quite deadly, is significant, especially since it looks to be only the first step in meeting Dutch and E.U. climate goals. But the costs of the plan may be far higher than the Dutch government is prepared to admit. The nation that wraps a noose around the neck of one of the oldest practices known to man is bound to produce at least as many problems as it hopes to eliminate.

Some problems are immediately obvious. While you might be able to cleanse your national production from the guilt of polluting the environment, you cannot cleanse your imports of the same. Somewhere, someone—probably China—is making up for it. All you have done is shift the blame. There are other practical implications, too. The Dutch are considered among the most efficient nations in the world in terms of livestock husbandry. Inhabiting a plot of land not much larger than Maryland, their farming exports totaled roughly 105 billion euros in 2021 alone. We can bet it won’t be only the Netherlands that feels a pinch with fewer producing farms.

It should be a striking prospect to Americans, whose nation was once dominated by farmers. (That, of course, is distinct from farming exports, which do not indicate the number of farmers producing them.) Men and women who tilled the earth and raised livestock were the majority of early American settlers, much like the Netherlands today. They, too, were slowly regulated out of the picture, while only those who learned to produce in massive quantities could withstand the financial pressure. We might wonder why millions of Americans are agriculturally illiterate, but one only has to think to ask how many of us personally know a farmer, or have farmed ourselves. As a job, farming is simply untenable for the majority of people. (Was there ever a stranger world than one in which it is more lucrative to post pictures of yourself online than to raise a few head of cattle?)

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Joel Salatin, the Virginia farmer who has grown famous for dissenting from many modern farming practices, boils much of his thought down to the idea that freedom requires participation. If you care about protecting certain things, whether free-range chickens or the free exercise of your religion, you are going to have to stick your own two hands in the coop to do so. Those who do not participate, or in the case of the Dutch farmers, those who have been regulated out of participating in their way of life, cannot be free.

This is essential to who we are as human beings, not just because farming is something men have done for almost all of human history, but because the natural order of things recommends it to us. We farm because we are seasonal beings, and in turn our intimate participation in the natural spells of sowing and reaping, springtime and harvest, death and life, root us as human beings in the truth of reality. This, in turn, makes them better citizens. Those who most stand to benefit from caring for our natural resources are those whose business it is to cultivate them. The farmer has a physical stake in the future flourishing of the land. The old property requirement for voting, whatever we might think of it today, was created for precisely this reason.

In this sense, a plethora of smaller farms, rather than a few large ones, may also be the best insurance against environmental pollution—both from those who abuse the earth for greater profit, and those who try to atone for such behavior with ill-advised shortcuts—because their survival depends on good environmental conditions, conditions that are impossible to sustain in large scale farming.

No number of new inventions can ever replace man’s need to till the earth, nor the earth’s need to be fed on and fertilized by herds of animals. But the Dutch government is determined to find out how close it can get to the line. Perhaps they can look to America to discover what happens to a people that has regulated farming to near obsolescence.

Behind the thousands of farms taken out of commission, and the thousands of farmers somewhat arbitrarily selected from the lot to be out of a job, is a mindset that says such things are dispensable. It is that age-old optimism in the ingenuity of man to find a workaround, to replace dependencies on sun and rain with modern technology; in short, to cheat nature. Those who have read the great stories will recall how this one must end.

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Editorial Fellow a "The American Conservative". Laureata in Filosofia politica allo Hillsdale College.