By Cory Eichman
One of the first thoughts Rudolf Steiner brings in the Agriculture Course, his 1924 series of lectures to farmers that form the basis of biodynamics, is that “Agriculture touches every aspect of human life.” So the question isn’t “Does biodynamics have anything to do with social justice?” but “In what ways does biodynamics intersect with social justice?”
The world changed dramatically in Steiner’s lifetime (1861-1925), with advances in communication and transportation technology making the world smaller, accompanied by tremendous social unrest in Europe. Many countries were experiencing the crumble of the old empire and monarchy social structures as part of the chaos around WWI. Steiner responded to the unrest with ideas and projects to encourage social health. Steiner's concept of social threefolding was founded on three ideals expressing three social spheres: equality in our human to human relationships, community empowerment, and government policy; freedom in our individual and cultural expression, spirituality, and initiative; and cooperation in our economic activities, allowing everyone’s needs to be met.
Biodynamics began in the context of this threefold vision of social justice. Some of the first farms experimented with alternative, equitable, labor/management relations. Associations were formed with over twenty businesses, including farms and mills in a cooperative called Der Kommende Tag (“The Coming Day”). Embedded in the economic picture was questioning the health of land as private capital. "Healing the Earth" has been one of the phrases used to describe biodynamics. What does that mean? What are the different layers of healing?
At the core of Steiner’s work was the concern that materialistic thinking was permeating every aspect of human life and becoming a global paradigm. What are the consequences of seeing nature, plants, animals, and people as only material processes? The original title of his lectures on agriculture was Spiritual Scientific Foundations for a Renewal of Agriculture. How do we grow food that nourishes the whole human being, and communities, in body, soul, and spirit?
At the end of the first lecture, Steiner says something curious about firewood. He says that if trees are planted in relation to cosmic rhythms—that is, in relationship to their spiritual nature (because whenever Steiner speaks of the sun, planets, or the moon, he means spiritual beings and intentions)—the warmth that comes from burning that wood will be healthier. He doesn’t say it will have more BTUs, but that there is a quality in the warmth to consider.
Halfway through the lecture series, he suggests that it’s less important to see food as providing substances for our body, but more significant that food provides fuel for our will. This ties into the fact that we are warm-blooded beings, that we can generate our own inner warmth. But again, it’s not just calories he’s talking about. Can there be a quality to consider in this warmth as well?
In the last lecture of the Agriculture Course, Steiner brings into the picture of nutrition the idea of “cosmic substance”. In his book Theosophy, he explains that this cosmic substance is our spiritual nature, akin to a “painting before it is painted”. It is who we are as beings, and what we bring to the world. In the Agriculture Course, he primarily talks about cosmic substance in relation to animal nutrition, suggesting the importance of allowing an animal to search for its own food as a means of nourishing its cosmic substance. In a group of lectures called The Human Being as Harmony of the Creative Word, he elaborates on the distinction between the “cosmic'' or “spiritual substance” in animals and humans. Animals (especially ruminants) return their cosmic substance to the earth when they die in order to rejuvenate the spiritual aspect of the earth. Humans, on the other hand, take our spiritual substance with us into the spirit world when we die. This allows us to work on our Karma and prepare for reincarnation. He suggests this could be the origin of the sacred qualities of cows recognized by Hindu tradition.
Another way Steiner describes spiritual substance is with the picture of striking another person. When you hit them, you feel pain in your own earthly substance, in the nerves of your hand. But, in your spiritual substance, you would feel the effect of the strike, you would feel their pain. Our spiritual substance reaches out into the world around us, like ripples from our actions (or from our lack of action, as that can have an impact as well). It is the root of empathy, our ability to step outside our own skin and participate in the feelings and concerns of others. This interest in others is the heart of social justice. Sensitivity to our spiritual substance can reveal karmic relationships and karmic impacts of our being. How does this manifest in day-to-day economic decisions (our personal purchasing choices)? How does this manifest in creating policies in our communities and organizations? How does it manifest in the historical narratives we tell each other and ourselves?
So if the warmth that is generated by our metabolic system through the food we eat can have different qualities, what role does food play in social justice? Can food help or hinder the development of this aspect of ourselves that is sensitive to the impact we have on others? How can we encourage the food that is grown and eaten to connect to the spiritual world helping us develop as human beings?
Steiner wrestled with the dynamic of individuals living in community. He tried to express a healthy relationship in this verse:
The healthy social life is found
When in the mirror of each human soul
The whole community is shaped,
And when in the community
Lives the strength of each human soul.
At the end of a series of lectures Steiner gave to medical students on Occult Physiology, where he describes the spiritual significance of the different systems of our physical body, he suggests that one of the main reasons we, as spiritual beings, even have a physical body is to be able to convert physical warmth into compassion. A good place to start is in the way that food can nourish our will to social justice.
Cory Eichman has been farming biodynamically for over 25 years and currently manages the Saugeen River CSA, an 80-acre mixed farm in Ontario. Cory has mentored apprentices since 1998, and has been teaching introductory and advanced Biodynamic courses through the Rudolf Steiner Centre Toronto, the Biodynamic Association, and independently since 2005.