It’s true. Those crazy hippies really were right. I must confess, I write this with pride, as yes, I was one of the crazy ones (see photo to the right). And we’ll explore in a moment what crazy meant back then, but let’s first look at what exactly hippies were right about. For the purposes of this article I want to single out the organic and natural foods movement.
The organic and natural foods movement/industry did not really begin with the hippies, but it did gain considerable traction during that period, and began to take root as a legitimate and serious food choice during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Co-ops, farmers markets, buying clubs, and small independent natural food stores began to emerge. But hippies weren’t really looking to create an organic and natural foods movement or industry per se. It was really about returning our food system to its rightful owner – nature. I know, that sounds really out there, as if I’m flashing back to my hippie roots, but let me provide a little historical perspective to more clearly understand the reference.
The most important takeaway from the history of organic farming is that it is not the new kid on the block as is so often portrayed. Organic agriculture did not suddenly pop up during the 1960’s, although as I mentioned earlier, the ‘60’s did begin a time of significant resurgence for the organic movement. It’s really conventional farming that is the late comer to the scene. Up until the 19th century, all farming was organic. It was not called organic farming by name. There was no need to brand it as anything to distinguish it from other farming methods. It was simply how people grew their food.
But as our culture changed, and as we moved towards a more industrialized country, our food supply system began to change. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides were first introduced in the 19th century. Mechanized tractors became available in the 1920’s and quickly replaced manual labor. With mono crops being developed (wheat) and as our country looked towards foreign markets for sales, we became entrenched in what was known as industrialized farming. After the Second World War, the United States had both the incentive and the scientific knowledge to leave behind agricultural methods that relied solely on sun, water and animals. We had entered the period of industrial farming powered by fossil fuels. Adding to the new direction was the experience of severe food shortages that were commonplace during the Great Depression and WWII. The U.S. was committed to insuring that the quantity and abundance of our food supply was paramount above all else, and this attitude seemed to work hand in hand with the industrialization of agriculture.
Technologies developed during World War II led to major increases in the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The ammonium nitrate used for munitions became abundant and inexpensive fertilizer. Nerve gas was developed into pesticides, including DDT. These developments resulted in great economic benefits along with significant environmental impact.
A major shift began to occur in the early 1960’s when Rachel Carson published her book, Silent Spring. This best seller is often credited with introducing the international environmental movement as well as leading to the 1972 banning of the pesticide, DDT. As concerns began to mount about pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, the differences between organic and conventional chemical farming came into focus and the birth of stand alone natural foods stores, coops and food groups focused on selling and promoting only organic foods emerged.
But the real battle wasn’t solely focused on food. It was much larger than that. The real battle was culture vs. counter-culture. Every society develops what we call a culture – the societal norms and implied standards that we live by. That’s the polite definition of culture. The hippies quite accurately understood culture to be something a little different. To them culture was simply what we all agreed upon, irregardless of whether or not it was true, effective, or even beneficial. Many of the collective agreements put in place by culture were necessary and truly benefited our citizenry; but many were very outdated, and only served to benefit a handful of people, and some even served to harm groups of people to the benefit of others. So those of us, in the counter-culture movement realized that much of culture as we knew it was simply an agreed upon lie. The only reason it was established as a norm was because everyone seemed to agree to it (often out of habit without any reflection or analysis). No other reason. And out of that lazy approach hippies and the counter-culture movement were born.
The hippies decided it was time to call out culture on it’s lies. The thinking was pretty simple – don’t accept that which isn’t real, which won’t hold the test of time, just because it’s currently the accepted norm. Keep in mind that norm comes from the word normal. And the opposite of normal is what we call crazy. And that is the defense that culture will typically use when you disagree with it. Culture portrays you as crazy, as fringe. They humiliate you and suddenly the very truth that you know to be real is diminished, laughed at, and those who fight for that truth are not taken seriously. You must stand tall in the face of that. Because of people standing tall, the organic and environmental movements have flourished and evolved into what they are today. When culture calls you crazy, it often means that you have hit upon a truth, a nerve that diminishes the impact of their lie. So for many of us, the combination of being both crazy and a hippie – that was sacred ground. We wore those labels with pride and dignity.
So bringing it all back home, the prevailing counter-culture belief saw that how we raised our food; how we cared for our water, our air, our land – all the things that nourish us – were not on a sustainable path and were certainly not going to encourage a healthy citizenry if we continued to create a food system that did not work with nature, but rather fought against it. In a sense, our farming system after WWII went to war again, only this war was against bugs and weeds. They became our enemy. They stood in the way of massive food production, and what ever it took, whatever the cost to eliminate them, our culture found not only acceptable, but desirable. And those who thought otherwise, well, they were the crazy hippies.
The irony in all of this is very rich. Hippies – who were accused of only living in the moment with no ambition whatsoever, were actually the only ones at the time who seemed to truly hold a vision for our future. Yes, it was the hippies who were motivated – motivated to find a way to create a far more healthier path than we were currently following; and certainly with an eye towards tomorrow, by believing that we must consider future generations when we look at how we manage the key ingredients of our life – food, water, air and the very land that we live on. This was not the vision of some crazed, misinformed, lackadaisical people. This was a highly thoughtful, caring group of people determined to change culture, and improve the lives and well being of its citizens.
And for the record, hippies were not really new to the 1960’s and 1970’s. Like organic foods, it was probably the first time that a name was attributed to such a group of people, but historically as we’ve defined hippies (counter-culture), they’ve been around for a very long time – doing very good work from generation to generation. If I may drop a few names – Buddha, Jesus, Gandhi, Mother Theresa. They were all counter-culture hippies, if you will. And what’s truly amazing about their accomplishments is that they all did it without rock n’ roll – the very muse that sustained us during our trials as 1960’s/1970’s counter-culture warriors.
So if the crazy hippies were so right – why did we not endure? My theory is that we simply traded out one set of cultural norms for another set. We turned our counter-culture into the culture, with all the pitfalls that we found in the prevailing culture that we sought to overturn. Suddenly, we had replaced one set of norms with another; one set of credentials with another set. If you didn’t think like us you were wrong; you became the crazy ones. We adopted the very same attitude towards our new culture that we initially rebelled against. Culture is not inherently bad. It’s all around us and a natural outflow of our need to find and create order. But culture must be mindful of the rules and boundaries it adopts. It must promote an inclusive and tolerant society. Culture, working at its best, should simply help us understand what is true, by taking advantage of the collective wisdom of its people… all of its people. Seeking truth and a better world does not automatically make you a rebel. Rebellion is not the purpose; finding truth and sharing it is.
Go find your inner crazy hippie! It will serve you well.