Chapter Seven–The normalcy bias

Ch. 7—The normalcy bias

Back in the early part of the nineteenth century, Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of our Declaration of Independence, was convinced that the small yeoman farmer was the very backbone of our democracy. As an independent operative, responsible for eking a living out of his smallholding, with all the planning and hard work it takes to make such an operation successful, the yeoman farmer was seen as embodying the highest ideals of self-governance and rectitude. During the first half of the 19th century there were many such small farmers in America, especially in the Eastern half of the country–with more to come as our people pushed their way westward, clearing ever more land as we went. This was the pioneer phase of our country’s development, and was a time when the little guy, the ordinary person, had the opportunity to show what he could do. It was a man’s world in those frontier times, and though women certainly player their part, theirs was mostly the supporting role of wife, mother, and drudge—with many dying of exhaustion before their time. But for those who could make a go of it, the life of the small farmer was felt to be a full and good life, by the farmers themselves and also by the public at large. Indeed, in the public imagination farm life was considered to be downright idyllic, and altogether wholesome.

What is most appealing about farm life is the independence it affords (at least in theory), along with the opportunity to spend a great deal of time out of doors in an environment that has been made over, and simplified,  but still retains certain elements of pristine Nature. A farmer’s independence grew ever more illusory as time went on and the inequities in our economic and political systems compounded their stratifying effects, with farmers finding themselves ever more deeply in debt: to the seed companies, the implement dealers, and especially to the banks. Many a farming story has ended with the little guy in overalls being foreclosed upon, and ruined, by a predatory shark in a suit.

As I was living the farm life in mid-twentieth century America, I knew nothing of the agricultural revolution that was already underway and would come to dominate the next half century and more of the agricultural scene.  The so-called Green Revolution was supposedly based upon improved plant genetics and an intensification of longstanding agricultural techniques—but that intensification came with its own social and ecological costs. Agriculture became agribusiness, and with this change the small yeoman farmer was to become an endangered species. Farming ceased to be a way of life and became instead a mechanized industry, and, like any other industry, was based upon imperatives of “efficiency” and economies of scale. The watchword was: “Get big or get out.”

Land holdings were consolidated and further simplified to accommodate the giant-sized farm machinery now coming into vogue. Small farmers were bought out by neighbors willing to go with the get-big program. When these overleveraged operations were beset by crop failures, market manipulations by Big Players, or by overwhelming debt, many of these medium-sized farmers also fell by the way. Corporations and Big Money interests bought up these small and medium-sized properties, consolidated them into one big property, removed barriers that might impede their giant machines—rises, depressions, any little irregularities of the landscape, and especially trees—thereby creating a monolithic farm-scape suitable for a vast expanse of whatever  monocultural crop might maximize profits, whether soybeans,  cotton, or corn. And not to forget all the chemical inputs now required to coax maximum return on investment: the synthetic fertilizers that find their way into creeks and rivers and create a vast dead zones in the gulf; and also the obligatory pesticides, fungicides, herbicides that poison the soil’s complex ecology, wiping out most of a vibrant biology that, in simpler times, made the Earth so naturally productive.

For me and my siblings,  life on the farm was pretty much an idyll: a wholesome way of life that made a positive contribution to our development as young people growing toward adulthood. Given the circumstances of the time, it was as good a life as I could have hoped for, and certainly far better than life in any city could ever have been. If I were to go by nothing more than the perspective of the normalcy bias. it would be quite easy to romanticize farm life, as I experienced it, and make the assumption that farm life in general was an all around good thing—as many people still believe today.  In fact, our culture encourages us to believe that agriculture is an overall good thing, and, of course, a huge advancement over the way humans lived before the dawn of agriculture.  But this is a far from accurate portrayal when you consider the actual historical facts.

The science of forensic archeology has looked at the skeletal remains of agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers who lived around the same time and place, and what they found tells a story of malnutrition and physical decline among those practicing the agricultural lifeway. The farmers, whose diet was much less diverse than their undomesticated cousins, showed a high incidence of tooth decay, a major shrinkage of their skeletal superstructure, including a ten-percent shrinkage of cranial capacity. That is, they were significantly shorter and slighter, with a reduced brain capacity, and they suffered from bad teeth.

Another significant health effect comes from those who practice animal husbandry living in close quarters with their domesticated animals: infectious disease, including smallpox, mumps, measles, influenza, and chicken pox, all of which were endemic to farm animals, and jumped hosts. When people live in close proximity to one another, as in towns and cities, what comes around tends to go around. As the geneticist Spencer Wells notes: “Ultimately, nearly every single major disease affecting modern human populations—whether bacterial, viral, parasitic, or non-communicable—has its roots in the mismatch between our biology and the world we have created since the advent of agriculture.”(Pandora’s Seed, p. 90.)

Another side effect of agriculture and early state-making was the routine practice of slaving raids. Agriculture has always required the work of many hands, especially at harvest time. As the historian James C. Scott observes: “For the early states, the taking of loot, particularly human captives, was not a mere by-product of war but a key objective. Slaving wars were systematically conducted by many of the earliest states in the Mediterranean as part of their manpower needs.” (Against the Grain: a Deep History of the Earliest States, p. 172) Imagine yourself as a small yeoman farmer, living your life with your family, tying to make a living on a small piece of land—struggling, at times, but essentially a free and autonomous individual—when suddenly you are attacked and swept away by slavers. Not only will you never see your family again, but as a captive you will be brutalized and forced to live out your foreshortened life under the whip of slavery. This scenario was a common theme in the lives of many who lived in or near the grain-growing areas of the Old World, and this model of state-building prevailed for many centuries as the norm.

If you happened to live during this historical epoch, your normalcy bias would reflect the prevailing insecurity of your situation in life. You would know that you could live some part of your life as a free and autonomous individual only to one day be overrun by marauders and forced into slavery, your human dignity shackled and chained, your life no longer your own.

For myself, I was born into a time and place that was particularly fortunate, as such things go. It was boom times America, following our victory in World War Two: the nineteen-fifties and sixties especially saw an essentially new class of people coming into their own; we were the middle class, and we were better educated, better paid, and enjoyed more opportunities for personal growth and material prosperity than any previous American generation. For someone like me, coming of age in these decades of economic expansion, it was only natural to assume that this was simply the way the world was—and thus was formed my own normalcy bias.

I cannot know the precise conditions of the life you are living, coming two or three or four decades behind me, but I can make an informed guess, based upon some things I have learned over the last seventy-plus years. I am afraid that your life will have more in common with the yeoman farmer become slave than with the privileged life that I have enjoyed. It feels unjust to me that this should be so, especially since my generation grew up under the influence of the Myth of Progress, according to which each succeeding generation will have it better than their parents. But like many of the myths of our culture, this is mere wishful thinking, contradicted by material reality as well as by the large historical forces that all but determine the trajectory of our lives.

I expect you to be living in a world that is falling apart: politically, economically, ecologically, socially, and in most every other way. There is nothing I can do about the material facts of your life, and maybe I cannot help you in any other way, either. But I am hoping I can, by providing you with some historical perspective on your situation, along with some clues about how things got to be the way they are. I have always had the faith that there is something magical and transformative about coming to terms with as much truth as can be taken in and processed. Knowing may not change your material situation, but it does have the potential to affect how you think and feel about your condition in life, by making you less the victim and more the inquiring intelligence that sees through knowing eyes.

The normalcy bias assumes a world that is more or less static, with the effect of locking you in to the daily grind, by shuttering your vision of what is possible and what has gone before. The antidote to the normalcy bias is the historical perspective, and I hope you find it as liberating as I have.