The story describes how the once thriving fisheries on Japan’s beautiful Lake Shinji, began to decline about a decade ago. New research suggests that runoff of the neonicotinoid pesticides (the same ones implicated in the decline of pollinators such as bees), which are used on nearby rice paddies, may be responsible for declining fish populations. The research suggests that the pesticides are killing off the food sources at the bottom of the food chain, such as insects and crustaceans, and the fish that prey on them are starving.
Startling on Two Levels
This is startling to me on at least two levels. The first is that humans keep making the same mistakes over and over (see: Provocations #2 – Whither Wisdom), and we cannot claim ignorance. I recall being taught in elementary school (a very long time ago) about food chains and food webs. That we have not learned anything in the intervening decades is stupefying and troubling. It is of course self evident that pesticides applied on farmland will find their way through the landscape, through runoff and other processes, and affect other ecosystems adversely.
Secondly, it seems to me that more and more environmental reporting is find its way onto food programs (like The Salt). This is heartening because there is such a strong link between what we grow, how we produce it, and the health of the planet (to say nothing of human health). There is an old, outdated and non-politically correct statement ‘that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.’ Perhaps our stomachs are a good way to our to our heads as well.
Flashback to Provocations #14
In Provocations # 14 – Managing Ourselves, I wrote: “What we need to manage is ourselves. We should manage humans and work with Nature.” But I just stumbled across this, much more eloquent statement from Rachel Carson, who put it this way in her June 1962 commencement address at Scripps College in California:
Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”
A less than abstract lesson from Frankenfood: why humanity is screwed. Rather than recognizing that we’re screwing up the planet, we’d rather invent a fake food to pretend that we’re not. This point is made abundantly clear in this excerpt from a recent news story about engineered coffee:
“As we got deeper into the process, we learned more about the threats to the coffee world as a whole — threats to the environment from deforestation, global warming and [a devastating fungus called] rust, and we were even more committed to making a consistently great coffee that was also better for the environment,” Stopforth says.
The future of coffee is uncertain. The amount of land suitable for growing coffee is expected to shrink by an estimated 50% by 2050, according to a report by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.
There is no such thing as sustainable growth. The two words should never be used in the same sentence, ever.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of English,Third Edition, sustainable (adjective) means to be “able to be maintained at a certain rate or level” (and equally appropriate here it also means “conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources.”). Whereas in this context, growth (noun) means “the process of increasing in size” and “the process of increasing in amount, value, or importance” and “increase in economic activity or value.”
By definition, indefinite growth cannot be sustainable. Yet growth is presumptive in modern economic theory, and is viewed as both necessary and good in virtually all current social and political thinking.
Image above: Estimates and projections of population change for different continents between 1950 and 2050 according to the United Nations. Note that the vertical axis is millions of people and the scale is logarithmic (in a sense, compressed).
Why is growth not sustainable? Growth is governed by the logistics equation. But a parable might explain this best. This story about the invention of the game of chess, seems to appear in different tellings from different cultures in Asia, but they are all the same in their general arc: A ruler is so impressed with the new game that he wants to reward the inventor. The inventor replies that she’d like one grain of rice on the first square, two grains of rice on the second square, doubling the number of grains on each square until the 64th and final square is reached. The emperor laughs at this paltry request, until he realizes his kingdom has been bankrupted. Versions of this story vary in minor details (rice vs. wheat for example) and as to whether the inventor was executed or appointed to a high-ranking position in court.
This is a clever and amusing tale to be sure, but the lesson here is about geometric progressions; also known as exponential growth. Which is precisely what is happening with human population growth as well as consumption and waste. I touched on this theme in Provocations #4 – A Matter of Scale.
Resource or Garden of Eden?
Our love affair with consumption and waste belies a resource view of the Earth.
Meaning that the Earth is simply a resource to be consumed, and has no other inherent value. It means exploitation: all taking and no giving back. It means leaving nothing for the future. It means leaving nothing for other living beings; for nature, upon which we rely for our very survival. I hope it is self evident to all why this is wrong on every level. Without fail this leads down a path of ever more desperate and extreme measures, and quite possibly of collapse. This is not sustainable. This is the growth mindset.
Two quick examples of what this looks like: Because the amount of arable land is finite, as population grows we compelled to employ ever more intensive farming measures, applying more and more on toxic chemicals (as argued by technocrats and massive agribusiness companies), and abandoning husbandry practices, which promote and protect the vital and living top soil. And another, as the planet warms due to human activity we turn more and more to burning fossil fuels to cool our buildings and homes, emitting more greenhouse gasses. It is a positive feedback process with negative consequences. These are examples of compounding problems (Provocations #5).
Humans came to live in and share the Garden of Eden, and ended up creating ‘Resources-R-Us.’
Green Growth – Not!
Maybe the greatest misnomer of all is “green growth” (for all intents and purposes a synonym with sustainable growth). This is a dangerous notion because it suggest that we can continue to grow – ‘hey it’s green so no cute little fur balls were harmed in the making of this economy.’ Green growth, while better is still consumptive, it is still growth, ergo it is not sustainable.
Green “sustainable” humans still takes up an inordinate amount of space. A growing population requires growing energy production: even 100% green energy will require vast quantities of space, and water, and additional energy to extract minerals produce and transport turbines, solar panels, etc. — it cascades! And at a minimum, we must consume food and water. Even good farming practices consumes space, converts forests to tillage, consumes energy, and so on. And of course what we eat, comes out as human waste which must be processed. And anything else we consume, even if green (packaging etc), compostable, reusable, recyclable, demands water and energy to produce, transport, and reprocess and/or dispose of (which requires more space for landfills). More cascading, with gross implications.
On a personal level, I am a pretty conscientious greenie. I live in a modest home (by middle class American standards), I drive a modest vehicle, I ride the bus many days each week, I recycle, I consciously reduce consumption and waste. And yet, when I estimate my global footprint (e.g. https://www.footprintnetwork.org), I still require 6.9 Earths to sustain me. Even if this estimate is way off (say 50% too high), I am still having a far greater impact on Earth than she can sustain.
The logical extension of a world view based on growth, green or not, is that humans are the only thing that matters; not even necessarily future humans.
Society Becomes Tenuous
If we continue with this growth mindset, it is hard to come to any other conclusion that Society as we know it becomes tenuous. Like the Emperor of old with his rice and chessboard, our growth will bankrupt the kingdom and societal collapse becomes a very real prospect. And as long as there is growth (population and/or ‘standard of living’) – THERE IS NO HOPE FOR NATURE, nor any reason to have faith that there should be. I feel that the jury is out regarding the future and fate of humankind. Because as clever as we are, we still ultimately and fundamentally rely on nature. We are one and the same – nature and humans. And the crimes we commit against nature, are ultimately self-inflicted wounds.
Perhaps in our anthropocentrism, people don’t really care? It would seem that as long as humanity goes on, that is all that matters. This (humanity goes on at the expense of nature) is the most optimistic outcome of the so-called sustainable growth mindset, and even then our future is in question. Irony abounds: the notion of green or sustainable growth inevitably leads to a world that I, and most ironically others, do not want.
Joni Mitchell can have the last word: “They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot.”
About the Image: The clean, white snow melts more slowly than dirty (darker) dust-covered snow because it reflects more radiation from the sun rather than absorbing it. This Image was excerpted from NPR, and was courtesy of the Center For Snow and Avalanche Studies.
Happy Earth Day!
A day for celebration and reflection on our impact on the planet.
In the waning days of last summer (2017)I saw a monarch butterfly.It was the first I had seen in a great many years where I live near the Rocky Mountains.In Provocations #7, I ask are monarchs with us for just a relative moment longer? Are they headed the way of the great northern white rhinoceroses?
I seem to recall seeing many more of these remarkable beings twenty years ago when our children were young.Back then, our daughter even found a monarch chrysalis, and she “raised it” in a jar.When the butterfly emerged, she made sure the wings could fully unfold and harden, and then she released it.A profound and moving experience for her, for the whole family actually, and an instructive connection to the cycle of life as well.
Today, I have had so few sitings!Virtually none. So I did a little digging.Scientific studies show a clear and disturbing decline in monarch butterfly numbers (see figure).An 80% decline in the last decade alone. Experts have concluded that there may only be a couple more decades left for these beautiful animals, before they become extinct.
The reasons for this decline point to humankind as the culprit.At the top of the list are modern agricultural practices, which have witnessed the widespread adoption of herbicides that are used with genetically modified corn and soybeans in the United States. These destroy the principle summer habitat of the monarchs. Habitat loss (deforestation) in the wintering grounds in Mexico is another likely cause. One can only imagine how many end as roadkill, adorning the grills of myriad vehicles in the U.S. While verging into speculation, one might reasonably ask what climate change has in store for these animals.
So many challenges for such a delicate and exquisite creature.The world will be a much smaller and sadder place without monarchs in it.
What can you do?
There are things you can do to help. As always, the most effective tool you have is your pocket book and the personal choices you make.Drive less.Consume less. Demand labeling for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and do not buy foods or goods that contain GMOs. You can also grow some milkweed in your yard or garden (find seeds for your region here).
I once again go back to Wendell Berry, the fount of so much wisdom.The closing words in his March 2015 essay Farmland Without Farmers in The Atlantic were:
“We have an ancient and long-enduring cultural imperative of neighborly love and work. This becomes ever more important as hardly imaginable suffering is imposed upon all creatures by industrial tools and industrial weapons. If we are to continue, in our only world, with any hope of thriving in it, we will have to expect neighborly behavior of sciences, of industries, and of governments, just as we expect it of our citizens in their neighborhoods.”