The Solutions are Hidden in Plain Sight–if you look through 21st century eyes

IMG_4806A lot of us in the Northeast are doing our share of grumbling this year about the Arctic air that just won’t go away.  Usually March is the time when the winds start to blow, the sap starts to rise, the snow melts into the thawing earth and our thoughts turn to snowdrops and crocus.

This year, we’re still in the deep freeze with a hardpack of snow on the ground, and no end in sight.

It’s all part of the erratic weather of our climate change era.  The question for all of us now is, how, beyond bitching and moaning, are we going to respond?

Most of us just shrug and turn the dial on the heater up a little higher, not thinking about what that very small, ordinary act really entails.

If your thermostat is wired into an oil burner or a natural gas furnace, like most homes and apartment buildings in the Northeast, then when you turn up the dial in response to the bitter cold you are, perhaps unwittingly, enabling, supporting and becoming an integral part of the very industry that is relentlessly destroying our climate.

The fossil fuel industry is not some demonic force outside of our control.  It’s just a human business that is responding to human needs for energy—lots and lots of energy.

We Americans are used to getting what we want, and what we’ve wanted, in the 50 years I’ve been on the planet, is ease.  What could be easier than turning a dial to make your house warmer in the winter or cooler in the summer, or gassing up your comfy car before you get on the freeway?

1_RussetLikewise in terms of agricultural production—we like to get our vegetables pre-washed and sometimes even pre-cut, all even-sized, no blemishes, laid out attractively in faux crates under spotlights in our upscale grocery stores.

When we buy that bag of potatoes or carrots, we’re not thinking about the tons of pesticide, herbicide, fungicide and fossil fuels that went into making it easy for us to throw these items in our shopping cart.

We’re not thinking about the bees, butterflies and other valuable insects that have been driven to population collapse by industrial agricultural practices; or the huge dead zones in the ocean at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where fertilizer and chemical run-off from the Midwest runs down to the sea; or the millions of birds that are affected each year by the toxic chemicals we spread over the landscape.

We’re just throwing that bag of veggies into the cart, or turning up that dial.

Well, the time of such oblivious innocence is over.

The curtain has been pulled back, and the Wizard of Industrial Capitalism has been revealed—and lo and behold, he wears the ordinary face of each one of us.

Every step we take on this beautiful, battered planet of ours matters.

Eric and me at the February 2013 Forward on Climate rally in DC

Eric and me at the February 2013 Forward on Climate rally in DC

I am heartened to know that this very weekend, one year after the big climate change rally in Washington DC that I attended in the hopes of pressuring the Obama Administration to block the Keystone XL pipeline, thousands of activists, most of them college students, will be raising a ruckus at the White House gates to insist that the politicians stop gambling away their future.

Here in my backyard, in the Massachusetts-New York region, people have woken up to the fact that mile-long trains of crude oil and gas are being run through heavily populated neighborhoods.

We’re moving to block gas fracking in western Massachusetts as the sight of contaminated tap water in fracking regions brings the dangers right home.

We’re also starting to get serious about making solar energy accessible to homeowners and businesses.

UnknownThis week’s New Yorker magazine has a fascinating article about a little-known scientific program to create a controlled thermonuclear fusion power plant.  Unlike the current fission plants, which burn radioactive fuel and generate dangerous waste, the fusion plant, if it were successful, would run indefinitely on seawater and lithium, with no waste.  It would be ten times hotter than the core of the Sun.

Talk about an audacious plan!  You have to hand it to human beings, we are nothing if not hubristic.  It is our greatest strength and our most glaring weakness.

Why spend billions on creating an artificial sun here on earth?  Why not just learn from our cousins the plants, and start to use the sunlight we have more efficiently?

It’s time to take off our grimy 20th century glasses and start looking at the world and ourselves through 21st century eyes.  When we do, we’re going to find that the solutions to all the problems that beset us have been hidden in plain sight all along.

A Milkweed Railroad for Monarch Butterflies

I will never forget that sun-washed September day back in the 1970s, when a Monarch butterfly landed on my finger and hung on there trustingly, resting its gaudy black-and-white polka-dotted abdomen on my warm skin.

close-up-of-monarch-butterfly-on-fingerA girl of about ten, dreamy and prone to tree-climbing and rock-sitting, I froze and observed the butterfly’s gorgeous gleaming wings, which beat back and forth slowly as it perched; and then, to my great delight, it unfurled its long, slim black tongue and began gently probing my skin, daintily sipping the beads of sweat it found there.

After a few minutes, it gave a carefree beat of its wings and caught an updraft over to a nearby stand of purple asters.  I watched it with delight, wishing it luck and Godspeed on its long migration south to Mexico, which I knew about thanks to my avid reading of Ranger Rick and National Wildlife.

Many years later, my son, also a keen observer of the natural world, brought a Monarch butterfly caterpillar that he’d found on a stand of milkweed home to munch milkweed on our kitchen counter.

UnknownWe watched, fascinated, as the caterpillar hung itself upside down in a J-form from a branch of milkweed.  Overnight, the soft striped body of the caterpillar hardened into a glossy green cocoon, and its the rear feet solidified into a strong stem, firmly cemented to the branch.

The cocoon hung quietly, quivering now and then as the mysterious transformation took place inside.

One morning we began to see the familiar black and orange outlines of the Monarch wings coming into view just beneath the green wall of the cocoon, now turning translucent.

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“You’d better put it outside,” I told my son.  “We don’t want it to hatch in the house!”

He put the vase with the milkweed and the trembling cocoon out on the porch, and we left for work and school.  By the time we came back, the miracle had occurred—the cocoon had been abandoned, and the beautiful Monarch had sailed away regally, following its destiny.

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This year not a single Monarch butterfly visited our garden, although I planted two butterfly bushes for them, and a stand of Asclepias, a whole bed full of bee balm, phlox and asters, and even left a few stubborn stalks of milkweed growing up through my roses.

“Did you see any Monarchs?” my son and I kept asking each other, knowing the answer but still hopeful.

No.

This is how extinction happens.  One year, a beloved species just doesn’t show up.  Life goes on.  But a hole opens  in the tightly stitched fabric of the ecosystem.  When there are enough holes like this, the whole fabric begins to unravel.

Jim Robbins wrote last Sunday in The New York Times:

Monarch butterflies on tree trunks

Monarch butterflies turn the forest orange. They return to a specific mountain forest in Michoacan, Mexico, year after year.

“On the first of November, when Mexicans celebrate a holiday called the Day of the Dead, some also celebrate the millions of monarch butterflies that, without fail, fly to the mountainous fir forests of central Mexico on that day. They are believed to be souls of the dead, returned.

“This year, for or the first time in memory, the monarch butterflies didn’t come, at least not on the Day of the Dead. They began to straggle in a week later than usual, in record-low numbers. Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year.”

Why are the butterflies disappearing?  It’s not just the Monarchs, although these large, showy insects are among the most beloved.  I saw very few butterflies of any stripe in my garden last summer.

As with the precipitous decline in the wild bee population, the culprit is industrial agriculture.

Butterflies rely on wildflowers for their bread and butter during the summer breeding months.  For Monarchs, milkweed is especially crucial.

tam_map_webThe long route from the Mexican forest where they winter to their North American breeding grounds used to be lushly planted with native wildflowers like milkweed.  No single butterfly makes the round-trip from Mexico up to my garden in New England.  Rather, each generation lives long enough to lay its eggs on a convenient stand of milkweed, and those caterpillars hatch, eat their milkweed, cocoon and turn into butterflies to carry the migration on.

It’s a mysterious, miraculous process, the knowledge of the route handed down across scores, perhaps hundreds of generations each season, year after year for untold millennia.

And then human beings invented Round-up.

agriculture-impact-climate-change-monoculture-farm-photoThe tragic decline, not just in the Monarch population but in all our native insects, can be traced directly to the use of chemicals in agriculture.  The herbicide Round-up, sprayed indiscriminately on the ever-spreading farmlands of the American Midwest, kills everything except those seeds genetically engineered to withstand it.

That is, it kills everything a butterfly would need to survive.

Thanks to Round-up and all the other pesticides, herbicides and fungicides used in American agriculture—combined with suburban sprawl, golf courses, lawns, malls and parking lots—much of the U.S. has become an ecological desert, from a butterfly’s point of view.

And without the butterflies and other insects, the bird populations crash too.

The bats die off.  The run-off from these poisoned fields kills the frogs and toads.  And before we know it, that one small hole left by the disappearance of the Monarchs has turned into a gaping, hemorrhaging wound from which there is no recovery.

What can we do?

Hawthorne Valley Farm, Ghent NY--biodynamic & organic

Hawthorne Valley Farm, Ghent NY–biodynamic & organic

One thing we can do as consumers is to support organic agriculture as much as we possibly can.  Yes, it’s more expensive, but think of those extra pennies as a donation to the Save the Bees, Birds and Butterflies effort.

You can also think of buying organic as an investment in your own health.  Pesticides and herbicides build up in our bodies too—we’re at the top of the food chain after all, just like the eagles and hawks who were dying from DDT back when that poison was still being sprayed on the fields.

It’s no accident that we have a cancer epidemic in America today.  What goes around comes around.

We can also be more thoughtful in how we compose our landscapes.  Those of us who are fortunate enough to have green space around our homes can get rid of grass lawns, which are green deserts to butterflies, and plant vegetable and flower beds instead.

05517F2I often find Swallowtail butterfly caterpillars munching away on my dill in the early summer, and I’m happy to share my crop with them.

Even the big tomato hornworm, which can chomp through a whole tomato branch in a single day, is cause for celebration in my backyard, especially now that I know they turn into the spectacular sphinx moth, a daytime moth so big and fast I’ve sometimes mistaken it for a hummingbird.

Imagine a Milkweed Railroad for the Monarchs, running from their winter home in Mexico all the way up to the far reaches of their breeding grounds in Canada.

Stands of milkweed would be planted in every park in every town along the way, so that wherever the butterflies spiraled down from the high updrafts that carry them along the ancient migratory route, there would be milkweed waiting to host their eggs, feed their caterpillars and provide sturdy stalks for their cocoons.

This is not a dream.  This is how it used to be, until the last few decades when human sprawl and wanton chemical use got out of hand.

What humans broke, we can fix.  We just need to set our hearts and minds to the task of repairing the holes in the fabric of our beautiful planet.  And in tending to the planet, we’ll be tending to ourselves.

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We eat by the grace of Nature, not by the grace of Monsanto

“Organic, schmorganic,” fumes New York Times columnist Roger Cohen sarcastically in an article entitled “The Organic Fable.”

He bases his sweeping dismissal of the organic foods movement on a new Stanford University study claiming that “fruits and vegetables labeled organic are, on average, no more nutritious than their cheaper conventional counterparts.”

Cohen does grant that “organic farming is probably better for the environment because less soil, flora and fauna are contaminated by chemicals…. So this is food that is better ecologically even if it is not better nutritionally.”

But he goes on to smear the organic movement as “an elitist, pseudoscientific indulgence shot through with hype.

“To feed a planet of 9 billion people,” he says, “we are going to need high yields not low yields; we are going to need genetically modified crops; we are going to need pesticides and fertilizers and other elements of the industrialized food processes that have led mankind to be better fed and live longer than at any time in history.

“I’d rather be against nature and have more people better fed. I’d rather be serious about the world’s needs. And I trust the monitoring agencies that ensure pesticides are used at safe levels — a trust the Stanford study found to be justified.”

Cohen ends by calling the organic movement “a fable of the pampered parts of the planet — romantic and comforting.”

But the truth is that his own, science-driven Industrial Agriculture mythology is far more delusional.

Let me count the ways that his take on the organic foods movement is off the mark:

  • Organic food may not be more “nutritious,” but it is healthier because it is not saturated with pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and preservatives, not to mention antibiotics, growth hormones and who knows what other chemicals.  There are obvious “health advantages” in this, since we know—though Cohen doesn’t mention—that synthetic chemicals and poor health, from asthma to cancer, go hand in hand.
  • Organic food is only elitist if it comes from Whole Foods—the one source Cohen mentions.  I grow organic vegetables in my backyard, and they save me money every summer.  We don’t need the corporatization of organic foods, we need local cooperatives (like the CSAs in my region) to provide affordable organic produce that doesn’t require expensive and wasteful transport thousands of miles from field to table.
  • About feeding 9 billion people: first of all, we should be working hard to curb population growth, for all kinds of good reasons.  We know we’ve gone beyond the carrying capacity of our planet, and we shouldn’t be deluding ourselves that we can techno-fix our way out of the problem.  Industrial agriculture is a big part of the problem.  It will never be part of the solution.  Agriculture must be relocalized and brought back into harmony with the natural, organic cycles of the planet.  If this doesn’t happen, and soon, all the GMO seed and fertilizers in the world won’t help us survive the climate cataclysm that awaits.
  • Mankind is better fed and longer lived now than any time in history?  Here Cohen reveals his own elitist, Whole-Foods myopia.  Surely he must know that some billion people go to bed hungry every night, with no relief in sight?  Mortality statistics are also skewed heavily in favor of wealthy countries.  So yes, those of us in the industrialized nations are—again, depending on our class standing—living longer and eating better than in the past, but only at the cost of tremendous draining of resources from other parts of the world, and at increasing costs in terms of our own health. Just as HIV/AIDS is the scourge of the less developed world, cancer, asthma, heart disease and diabetes are the bane of the developed world, and all are related to the toxic chemicals we ingest, along with too much highly processed, sugary, fatty foods.
  • For someone who is calling the organic movement “romantic,” Cohen seems to have an almost childlike confidence in authority figures.  He says he trusts “the monitoring agencies that ensure pesticides are used at safe levels — a trust the Stanford study found to be justified.” And I suppose he also still believes in Santa Claus?  We cannot trust that the “safe levels” established by the EPA or FDA are in fact safe, given the fact that we operate in an environment where thousands of chemicals enter the market without sufficient testing, presumed innocent unless proven guilty—but to win the case against them, first people must get sick and die.
  • Cohen’s zinger, “I’d rather be against nature and have more people better fed,” displays his own breathtaking blind spot as regards the human relation to the natural world.  Human beings cannot be “against nature” without being “against ourselves.”  We are a part of the natural world just like every other life form on this planet.  Our fantasy that we can use our technological prowess to completely divorce ourselves from our material, physical reality is just that—a fantasy.  We eat by the grace of nature, not by the grace of Monsanto.

For the entire history of homo sapiens, we have always eaten organic.  It’s only been in the last 50-odd years, post World War II, that wartime chemicals and technologies have found new uses in agriculture.

The result has been the rapid and wholesale devastation of vast swaths of our planet—biodiversity giving way to monoculture, killer weeds and pesticide-resistant superbugs going wild, the weakening and sickening of every strand of the ecological web of our planet.

The relevant fable to invoke might be the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk.  We might be able to grow a fantastically huge beanstalk if we fed it with enough chemical fertilizers, and we might even be able to climb it and bring back a goose that lays golden eggs.

But in the end, that beanstalk will prove to be more dangerous to us than it’s worth—we’ll have to chop it down, and go back to the slow but solid organic way of life that has sustained us unfailingly for thousands of years.

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