The Three “Great Separations” that Unravelled Our Connection to Earth and Each Other

John Ikerd

A Neanderthal reconstruction.

We are confronted today with a multidimensional ecological, social, and economic crisis that is rooted in our growing sense of disconnectedness from each other and from the Earth. In his book, The Great Turning, David Korten referred to this crisis as the great unraveling.” I believe the great unraveling is rooted in three great separations.”

People in prehistoric civilizations understood the importance of relationships. They had intimate relationships with the Earth as well as with the other people with whom they shared the planet. They were hunter gatherers. Indigenous peoples relied on each other also for companionship as well as their survival. Many also considered the heavens and Earth as the embodiment of their concept of God. That being said, their relationships with nature and with each other were clearly relationships of physical or material necessity.

The agricultural revolution of some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago brought about a fundamental transformation of human life on Earth. 

The agricultural revolution brought the first great separation. With the dawning of agriculture, the tendency was to see the other things of the earth as resources to be exploited rather than fellow living beings or a sacred trust to be revered and protected. By tilling the land and domesticating animals, humans were able to lessen their dependence on the bounty or scarcity of nature. Perhaps most importantly, in their separation from other things of nature there was a sense of independence from God’s creation and thus a sense of separateness from God.

The second great separation followed the industrial revolution. The separation of people into farmers and non-farmers actually began with the early enclosure movement during the 1600s. Prior to the enclosures, land was held in common for public use, not owned by individuals. The industrial revolution and rise of capitalism also occurred during this time. Adam Smith wrote his landmark book, The Wealth of Nations, in 1776. Land was privatized so the most efficient use of land could be determined by market competition rather than community consensus. Labor then also had to be commodified,” or bought and sold, so non-farmers could work for wages and buy food and the other necessities of life they had been getting from the land. With reliance on working for wages, buying, and selling the necessity for personal relationships were diminished.

With the diminished necessity for personal relationships, the social cohesion within families, communities and society began to diminish as well. The persistence of chronic poverty and malnutrition, even during times of tremendous economic growth and individual wealth, are direct consequences of a growing sense of disconnectedness from each other that was nourished by the industrial era of economic development.

The third great separation was the industrial agricultural revolution. Until well into 1900s, farming remained a means of feeling some sense of connection with the earth. When I was growing up on a small farm in the 1940s and 1950s, rural communities were interwoven networks of people who knew each other mainly out of necessity. Farming was a community affair, by necessity. Nearly everyone in the United States lived on a farm, had lived on a farm, or knew someone who lived on a farm. There was still a sense of connectedness to the land, the earth, through food and farming. But times changed” in rural America. The industrialization of agriculture removed the necessity for community-based farming.

Farmers eventually lost their sense of connectedness to their land, to each other and to their communities. Consumers no longer know who produces their food, where it was produced, or how it was produced. What happens to food between the earth and the eater has become largely a mystery. Food for family gatherings and religious holidays are of economic importance to the food industry, but have little social or spiritual significance beyond following cultural traditions. The dependence of humanity on the Earth for food is no less than during the early times of hunting and gathering, but the sense of connectedness between the eater and the Earth has been lost.

The plight of rural America is succinctly summarized in a recent letter to the book editor of the New York Times by Wendell Berry. The farmer, philosopher, and gifted author writes:

The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value — minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and labor” — has been taken at the lowest possible price. As apparently none of the enlightened ones has seen in flying over or bypassing on the interstate highways, its too-large fields are toxic and eroding, its streams and rivers poisoned, its forests mangled, its towns dying or dead along with their locally owned small businesses, its children leaving after high school and not coming back. Too many of the children are not working at anything, too many are transfixed by the various screens, too many are on drugs, too many are dying.

What’s happening in rural America is a microcosm of what’s happening all across America, in urban as well as rural areas, and all around the world. David Korten cites compelling evidence of economic inequity and decline, natural resource depletion, global climate change, social divisions and wars, and mass extinction of species. We are confronted with an ecological, social, and spiritual crisis arising from our lost sense on interconnectedness with each other and with the Earth — the three great separations.

From the wisdom of Pope Francis: We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” He identifies an increasingly myopic preoccupation with economic self-interest as the root cause of this crisis. He writes, Human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.” Everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.” 

Reconnecting with each other and with the earth is no longer a matter of choice, it is a matter of absolute necessity.

(The Three Great Separations” was originally published on John Ikerd’s blog and is reposted on Rural America In These Times with permission. For more information about Ikerd’s work, click here.)

John Ikerd was raised on a small dairy farm in southwest Missouri. He received his BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees in agricultural economics from the University of Missouri. After working in private industry, he spent 30 years in various professorial positions at North Carolina State University, Oklahoma State University, University of Georgia and the University of Missouri before retiring in early 2000. He now spends most of his time writing and speaking on issues related to sustainability with an emphasis on economics and agriculture. He currently resides in Fairfield, Iowa and is the author of several books including Essentials of Economic Sustainability, Sustainable Capitalism, A Return to Common Sense and Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture and A Revolution of the Middle.
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