February 1st, 2009


Song of the fields

Worried by Britain's financial meltdown, The Guardian recently ran an Apocalypse Survival Guide on their website front page. It took the form of a video of their correspondent Tanya Gold trying to fend for herself in a forest. The question was framed in selfishly individual terms: "What do you do if you're the only survivor after the apocalypse?"

Within seconds, Tanya references Hollywood: "It's happened. The worst. It's over. You wake up one morning and every nightmare scenario from a Hollywood film of the last twenty years has come true. Government has gone. The water is off. Electricity has gone. Everyone is dead. So what are you going to do, go and live in Sainsbury's and live off cake, or are you going to try and learn to live off the land, take natural resources, and, you know, go and hang out in the woods?" Hanging out in the woods turns out to involve graphic scenes of Tanya in full-on yuk mode, twisting the head off a pheasant and sticking her arm up its anus to pull out its heart.

A completely different scenario -- and attitude -- is presented by TV Tokyo's Hatake No Uta (Song of the Field), which airs on Sundays at about noon Japanese time (you can watch it on the LiveStation Player, but first you'll have to work out which of the three channels named TV Tokyo it is).

If the Guardian's Apocalypse Survival Guide models a return to the land on a dystopian Hobbesian-Hollywood model of selfishness and violence, Hatake No Uta goes completely the other way. Here, survival in the countryside is a matter of semi-religious respect for nature, love of food, poetry, gentleness, wholesomeness, teamwork, beautiful scenery, simple, heart-warming people, something utopian. Now, sure, I wouldn't know country life if it bit me on the nose. But I do recognise cultural difference when I see it.

The video above -- a compilation of the sections involving singer-presenter Ueno Juri (that's why it's called Song of the Field) munching various root crops -- doesn't quite do the show justice. Last night's report was on a couple who lived in a farm in the Japanese alps. The woman -- only 28, but somehow timeless -- said she'd been inspired to start a farm in Japan after a trip to South America, where the low-tech farming had appealed to her.

There were scenes of tofu-making in flowery housecoats, of pulling up radishes from under the snow, of a visit from an old lady neighbour, of produce kept in pink plastic buckets. The programme is sponsored by Food Action Nippon, a citizen movement which aims to improve Japan's 40% self-sufficiency rate for food, to slow food down, and to "preserve cultural heritage such as vegetables, fruits and cattle that are in danger of vanishing and tied to a specific region and special cultivation techniques".

The craziness of our current food situation came up in my interview with Mike Mills yesterday, when Mike started talking about the food miles represented by one cup of Starbucks coffee. One estimate of the commodity chain food mileage in a single cup of Starbucks coffee suggests the ingredients have traveled 18500 miles. I responded with a thought from an article I'd just read about the financial crisis in the New York Review of Books, How we were ruined and what we can do: "The mortgages traveled such a long distance from institution to investor that no one was in personal touch with the actual mortgage holder any longer."

Basic things like food and housing have become subject to transactions and logistics which are just ridiculously complex and tendentious. They've been over-globalised, over-sold, and over-abstracted. We need, now, to cut out the derivative-chain waffle that even computers have lost track of, and reconnect our basic needs to the basic resources around us.

One form of globalisation that should stay in place, though, is international communication. I totally welcome being able to watch a Japanese solution to this common problem in real time over the internet, and I welcome there being cultural differences in the ways we respond to the current crisis, because differences mean choices. Call me a hippy, but I don't believe self-sufficiency has to be a Hollywood nightmare.