Libertarians and the Environment

I’ve been running into a lot of Ron Paul supporters, and perhaps the most surprising wrinkle comes from people who believe that a strict adherence to private-property rights will help the environment.

The problem here is that while most people don’t understand how the environment actually works, libertarians, given their ideological precepts, understand it even less. I’ll explain how shortly.

But first, I’ll note that even in the context of libertarianism, the “Ron Paul, Environmentalist” label surprises me especially.

It is surprising because, for one thing, Paul – who used to at least acknowledge that human-caused climate change might be a problem – has more recently taken to calling it a hoax .

Given that climate change is inarguably taking place, and that scientists are essentially in unanimous agreement that human activity is largely to blame, I have a hard time accepting anything else the guy says about saving the planet. Even if – maybe especially if — he’s got a campaign video titled “He cares about the environment.”

Highlights of this video include some scholar implying that pollution began because of the federal government’s pro-industrialization policy of “the 1930s and 40s.”

First – so Ron Paul’s against heavy industry? Welcome to the ranks, Luddite brother!

Second: Who knew that industrial pollution didn’t begin until well over a century after the start of the Industrial Revolution? Before that, mankind was apparently free of the sin of pollution, which some deluded scholars have suggested goes back to, you know, the dawn of civilization.

Now, however, I know it was all sustainable agriculture and water-based paint until FDR got his oily mitts on things.

But I digress. In fact, I’m betting that Paul’s untenable position on climate change is linked to his unbending property-rights ideology.

Basically, his position boils down to this: You don’t have the right to pollute your neighbor’s air, land or water. And if you do, the neighbor can go to the government and get an injunction to make you stop polluting.

There’s more to it, of course, and most environmentalists would applaud Paul’s desire to eliminate subsidies for big oil, for instance. But balance that against his belief that the federal government has no right to regulate how oil is explored for, or extracted, or refined, or any other aspect of that or any other polluting industry. (He’d also abolish the EPA.)

Instead, it would all come down to people defending their property rights.

That works fine if you think of pollution along the lines of your next-door neighbor tossing his beer bottles over the fence. Easily identifiable source of the pollution, easily identifiable remedy. Sounds right folksy, too. Jes’ a dispute between neighbors, heh-heh.

But pollution doesn’t work like that. And neither does the environment.

Instead, pollution from a single source – say, a coal-fired power plant – can contaminate the air, land and water for hundreds of miles around it, through soot or airborne mercury, say.

And neither are the pathways of contamination straighforward. Mercury, for instance, enters the food chain and is transformed into ethylmercury. There it accumulates from smaller to larger organisms, where big predators, like your neighbors, might gobble down a load of it in river-caught fish.

Indeed, there might be tens of millions of “neighbors” – and perhaps not any “property owners” who recognize the pollution as such, at least not right away.

And the single “polluting neighbor” is a vast oversimplification of the environmental problems we face.

Finding examples isn’t hard. An item in yesterday’s paper cited a report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science that attributed a rise in deadly parasites in marine mammals from otters to killer whales to a rise in coastal development and runoff from industrialized farming flushing pathogens into the sea.

Well, say the libertarians, industrialized farming is a byproduct of federal agricultural policy … Sure, in part. But what about coastal development paving over wetlands? Isn’t that just a bunch of right-thinking private-property-holders exercising their rights to do with their property as they see fit?

OK – but wetlands are nature’s kidneys. As the AAAS report points out, wetlands – private-property-holders of the past liked to call them “swamps” – serve a crucial ecological function: They filter pathogens and other toxins that we humans put into the water before they reach the sea.

Which brings me to how the environment works. It’s not simple enough to be made all better by keeping beer bottles out of your yard. It’s a vastly complex web of organisms (and indeed, non-organic life) interacting in a manner finely tuned by evolution.

(By the way, fun fact Google just taught me: Ron Paul doesn’t buy evolution, either. That’s correct: He’s an MD — as his supporters relentlessly remind us — and he doesn’t accept the principle that explains better than any other how, say, antibiotic-resistant bacteria develop. Friends, I’ll be spending my next co-pay elsewhere. And this guy’s telling me what’ll fix the environment?)

Here’s another reason pollution isn’t simple. Even if you’re just worried about people, and not animals and other non-human organisms, the people affected by pollution might not even know they’re being poisoned for years down the road.

And what would happen to the property-rights argument when Neighbor Bob goes claiming that Neighbor Dow Chemical is releasing toxic fumes into his airspace – but Neighbor Dow says that the fumes aren’t actually toxic, and anyway, enough of them aren’t reaching your lungs to hurt you?

Admittedly, this is a problem with environmental regulation as it now stands. (And many people beset by pollution believe, often with good reason, that government regulators collude with industry.)

But imagine the plight of polluted communities that didn’t have even the possibility of recourse to federal regulators who could prove that the air reaching Neighbor Bob’s lungs was giving him cancer. It would be his word against Dow’s. Sounds like a fair property-rights fight to me. Especially when the most polluted communities tend to also to be the poorest and least privileged. (Though I guess libertarians would just argue that that’s their fault, for not working hard enough.)

We actually don’t have to talk marine mammals to make this point. Another example involves the “dead zones” in bodies of water including the Gulf of Mexico. There, a huge patch of seawater – sometimes compared in size to Delaware – has gone eutrophic, or absent oxygen. The reason is the flood of synthetic nutrients – fertilizer – that sweeps down the Mississippi River from the agricultural areas that line it clear up to Illinois. That’s got to be thousands, if not tens of thousands of farms, blowing away a pelagic ecosystem.

Even if you don’t value that ecosystem for its own beauty and right to exist – and I suspect many Ron Paul supporters do not – think about what it does to Gulf fisheries. Who is Neighbor LaRue going to seek an injunction against? Each of those thousands of farms? Wouldn’t that take a while? Like maybe forever?

And we haven’t even talked about people who might be rich enough to buy, say, their own watershed, and be willing to pollute the hell out of it, say, with a copper mine. (Fly over Arizona if you don’t believe this already happens.) That would give them the right to destroy any species peculiar to that landscape. And no one else could say a thing about it.

Same thing if someone were rich enough to buy his neighbors’ silence about his pollution. Effectively this is happening right now, in my home state of Pennsylvania. Natural-gas drillers pay signing bonuses and royalties to landowners, who trade the cash for poisoned land, air and water. Of course, some if not all of that pollution is going to go over property lines. And good luck finding out which specific party caused it so you can get an injunction against it.

The problem here isn’t that libertarians, or Ron Paul supporters, aren’t smart. Most of them, in my experience, are. The problem lies in how they view the world.

Their worldview is a more extreme version of the way most Americans view it. Environmentally, they see nature as a collection of individual resources to be variously used, plucked or preserved for our enrichment or amusement.

Most Americans believe this, but libertarians, given their ideology privileging private property above all else, even the common good, believe it more, and more explicitly.

But nature is not a collection of individual resources. It is, rather, a series of relationships. You cannot, for instance, take large predators out of the food chain without allowing key prey species – think white-tailed deer – to run amok. You can’t turn vast stretches of forest and meadow into farmland, and then spray it with pesticides, without changing not just the crops, but the entire ecosystem in a given area.

Things will go out of balance. And every pollutant you put into the environment affects not just your neighbor, but everyone nearby – and sometimes, in the case of persistent pollutants like PCBs, everyone on earth.

The discrete-resources way of looking at the environment derives from the Enlightenment-era thinking from which sprang free-market theorists like Adam Smith. These early-industrial thinkers believed that the world’s capacity to provide us with raw materials, and absorb our pollution (yes, it existed then, too) was effectively infinite. And unlike, say, indigenous peoples who lived in nature, they didn’t understand much about ecology.

Now we know more about ecology. And we know, or should know, that the world’s ability to supply raw materials and absorb pollution is not infinite. But we still act as though it is.

And so there is this persistent pollution, everywhere you go, in almost everything you see. How does that compute in a property-rights model? Even if every square inch of land and every square mile of ocean were owned by someone – a bad idea, I’d argue, for a completely different set of reasons – how would you sort out such claims and counterclaims by the simple step of seeking injunctions against your “neighbor,” the polluter?

And here, then, is at least one reason why Ron Paul refuses to acknowledge the reality of climate change. It is because climate change illustrates what’s wrong with his private-property model of environmentalism writ large. Writ planet-large.

The problem is that humans, by our collective actions over time – including, yes, deleterious government policies, but mostly actions by individual private-property-owners – are altering, hugely and perhaps irreparably, the only climate human civilization has ever know.

We are altering, in fact, that climate that allowed agriculture as we know it to develop. And agriculture is the foundation of human civilization.

But who’s responsible? We all are. Who’s harmed? All are.

And unless we all seek injunctions against each other – or perhaps against industrial socieity — there is no way to imagine our way out of the crisis without large-scale intervention from federal governments (or their equivalent) from around the world.

Such action won’t be in itself sufficient, of course, and it might not even be forthcoming. But it’s our only hope. And Ron Paul can’t acknowledge that climate change is real unless he acknowledges that, too – a heresy in his religion of private property.

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Here’s a puzzle: No one would profess to want to harm the environment, yet environmental harm continues apace.

Indeed, even as our avowals of greenness grow stronger and more frequent — even in automobile commercials! — destruction picks up steam. Carbon-dioxide emissions are still rising, the oceans still being fished out. And every monied force in the country seems bent on extracting the last molecules of coal, petroleum and natural gas from the earth, regardless of the damage.

The solution to the puzzle is this: While we want to save the earth, we don’t want it enough.
In other words, we depend utterly on the continued and predictable functioning of the natural world as we’ve known it since the dawn of agriculture – climatologically, hydrologically, etc. But opinion polls consistently show that “the environment” ranks pretty low on people’s list of priorities, somewhere behind jobs and price of gas.

For most people, the environment probably places ahead of what’s on cable tonight, but I wouldn’t be on it.
I don’t know whether this is a failure of education or one of will.

Maybe it’s just a failure of love.

Part of us, after all, knows that our consumption-based lifestyle – the one we’re told the billions in the developing world aspire to – is completely dependent on cheap supplies of a nonrenewable energy source. And part of us knows we can’t keep burning fossil fuels at the rate we’ve been and expect everything to turn out OK.

But that same part of us also knows that to prevent bad things from happening environmentally, we must do things a lot differently.
I’m among those who argue that a world with many fewer cars, with much less air travel, with locally based economies no longer dependent on extractive industries and industrial-scale agriculture – no longer dependent on Americans buying new shoes month, or more Chinese people buying GM sedans – would be a cleaner, healthier, saner world.

But most people see such change only in terms of losing what they value: comfort, speed, convenience, material affluence.

Whether these things are worth having, or even whether we’d actually lose them all, is beside the point. The point is, we won’t act to make a different world because we don’t want to surrender the one we’re in.

We love our cars more than the polar bears who’ll never survive climate change. We love cheap fish more than we love collapsing ocean ecosystems (which might cost us the fish anyway). We love cellphones and iPods more than the jungles and other ecosystems that are devastated by the mining for the rare-earth minerals used to make such gadgets.

There is more to this, of course, than what everyday people want. It’s also about what they’re told to want, and about the corporations who stand to lose if people want something different, and who work to keep things pretty much the way they are.

But in any case, change can’t be imposed on people who don’t want to change. And we’ll change only if we learn to love the land, air and water more than we love the lifestyle we wring from them now.

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I’m not sure if it was a leaf-blower or a leaf-sucker, but the man I saw wielding it on his suburban lawn, over Thanksgiving, was doing so with intent. His target was the last stray leaf on his still-green half-acre. He wanted that leaf gone.

A recent op-ed piece in the local daily also touched on the subject of perfection. The writer was talking about the dangers posed by pesticides and other agricultural chemicals. His point was one I second. But he phrased one passage interestingly, intimating that giving up pesticides would leave us with “slightly less perfect produce.”

Interesting because even so passionate a critic of industrial agriculture as this writer accepted on some level the idea that “perfection” in produce equates with nothing but the industrial-agricultural sort of perfection we’ve been sold.

The supermarket apple, for instance, will be such and such a size, with a uniformly smooth skin that has the coloration only “of an apple.” Banished will be the harmless specks, spots, rough patches and bumps familiar to anyone who’s been fortunate enough to see and taste an organic apple.

It was only a few generations ago, of course, that all fruit was “organic.” Synthetic pesticides scarcely existed before the middle of the 20th century. Almost all apples would have had such “blemishes.”

But someone started marketing perfection, and the chemicals to help proliferated. There are even chemicals that change the shapes of apples (making the sides of red delicious apples, for instance, longer) because those are the shapes that we supposedly like and will more readily buy.

Meanwhile, back to lawns. The green, manicured expanse of a lawn consiting of a single kind of grass, unmixed with crabgrass or dandelion, is also a figment of modernity. But now the woods are cut to give us lawns, and we lose the protection of soil, and against flood. And we lose the animal habitat that the trees afford. Then the lawns are cut, burning gasoline for no good reason, the clippings shipped off like exiled convicts to rot in a landfill.

And the fertilizers and weed-killers that are sprayed to keep the grass monolithic soaks into the soil and seeps into the groundwater, or washes straight off into the sewers. It all ends up in the rivers, streams, lakes and oceans.

It’s one big reason waterways like the Chesapeake Bay are increasingly unable to support aquatic life: The fertilizer, for instance, causes algae blooms that sucks the oxygen out of the water. And the hormone-mimicking compounds that are in most weed-killers are one likely reason for things like reproductive abnormalities in fish and frogs.

Suck up that last leaf. It used to decay into new soil, and feed the forest that fed and sheltered animals (and people). The cycle took awhile. But perfection, apparently, doesn’t have that kind of time.

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Nature is Not “Out There”

It would be great to be able to be legitimately amazed that people don’t understand that we depend on the natural world for literally everything, and that anything that upsets its equilibrium is bound to harm us, too.

But we can’t be amazed by people’s ignorance of our dependence on nature. Just as prehistoric humans (or hunter-gatherers, or traditional farming cultures) understand this dependence from experience, so industrial humans learn the opposite: That nature, to the extent that it’s not simply our servant, is just a matter of aesthetics. Species die, the atmosphere warms, topsoil washes out to sea – all too bad, of course, but none of it really matters. Somebody will figure it out. Won’t affect us.

I was reminded of this ingrained mentality by an NPR report last week about plans to build a coal depot in coastal Washington state. Some neighbors oppose the project, understandably enough, because it will be an eyesore and will dirty the air and the water, among other drawbacks.

The reporter raised another issue: What about the fact that the depot would facilitate the burning of coal, which is the biggest single source of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas? (The depot would ship U.S. coal to China.) Well, said one opponent of the project, that’s not an effective issue to raise. People don’t care about climate change, he said. “People care about their own lives.”

Somewhere, perhaps, there’ll be people who aren’t affected by climate change – a process, already well under way, that will alter the very climatological terms under which civilization itself arose. These will be people who don’t need food, or water. The climate that’s changing is the one that allowed agriculture as we know it, and hence civilization itself, to develop.

Those terms are now becoming obsolete, as warmer air leads – for starters — to faster cycles of evaporation and changing rain patterns, like more flooding in some places and more drought elsewhere.

The descendents of those first agricultural societies increasingly developed their technology. Somewhere in the past few hundred years, it reached the point that people stopped needing to rely on nature directly for their living: hunting their food, or growing it, for instance. Somebody else did that for them; now even the waste we make is sent far away.

We believe ourselves outside of nature, independent of it. That’s a comforting fiction, as it leads us to downplay the value of what we’re so busying destroying. But it won’t be comforting forever.

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Outhouse Wisdom

This past summer I spent a few days in a place where one relieved oneself in an outhouse. And now I shall show you the world in a grain of poop.

My retreat was a nature preserve-slash-primitive-farm-slash-education center in the mountains of western North Carolina called Turtle Island. It’s owned and run by Eustace Conway, subject of Elizabeth Gilbert’s fine book The Last American Man. It’s 1,000 acres big, mostly woods; the full-time occupants include Eustace’s significant other plus a few interns, along with chickens, ducks, goats, dogs and horses. There are often a handful of visitors like me (this was my fourth visit over the past several years), and any given day in season there’s a good chance of a pile of chaperoned kids visiting to learn about nature, traditional crafts and the like.

The place has no electric lines or plumbing. The only heat’s from wood fires, also the energy source for the open-air kitchen. There is a little electricity generated onsite from small solar arrays, and a mini-hydro setup powers a chest freezer. (I visited in the middle of a drought and the turbine was idled, the season’s deer meat spoiled.)

Every time I visit Turtle Island, one of the commonplaces I’m most struck by, however, is the outhouse. In urban society, outhouses are a punchline, a hallmark of rustic boobery. In fact, outhouses used to be quite common in cities; the Pittsburgh rowhouse I live in had one until the late 1940s. But building codes wouldn’t allow them these days, to say nothing of social opprobrium. Outhouses are something our society has supposedly “risen above,” like walking, growing our own food or hanging laundry out to dry.

To understand the wisdom of the outhouse, know that in the average American home, the single biggest water-user is the toilet. Like all the water that enters most homes, toilet water has been pumped from some river or reservoir, treated with chemicals, pumped to a water tower and then to your house.

Because all of this water is treated to be potable, it’s really an enormous waste: Millions of gallons of drinkable water no one will ever drink goes down toilets and into lawns.

Water treatment is also one of the City of Pittsburgh’s biggest single uses of energy, so every gallon contributes to things like global warming, too.

The irony is that this perfectly clean water, having been run at great per-gallon expense through your toilet, is now fit only to flow back to some pump and be treated again before it’s dumped in the river. (A worse irony: Water unnecesarily treated to drinkability that’s used to water lawns picks up pesticides and herbicides and then makes its way inevitably into our ground and surface water. So glad we bothered to clean it …)

It’s a classic industrial-civilization overkill to manage a function literally older than humankind: Maximum resources employed to minimum effect. Of course, open sewers are not an option. (Modern plumbing and sanitation, which date back only a century or so, are how cholera and typhoid were exiled from cities.) But there must be ways to accomplish the same thing without so much effort.

The wisdom of the outhouse is that there is no waste, so to speak, in the disposal of one’s feces. No industrially sanitized water is required to flush it away, and no chemicals to strip away its microorganisms before its mass returns to the river via sewage-plant outfall. And when the hole beneath the outhouse is full, you just move the little wooden house. (I’ve never asked whether Turtle Island’s poop is used for any purpose — but even if it’s not, burying it in situ is preferable to sending it miles through a tube to some obscure useless fate.)

Turtle Island also has a smart way of accommodating those of us privileged to pee standing up. Three five-gallon buckets filled with sawdust sit under a small awning. The sawdust in them absorbs the urine, which contains nitrogen, a valuable fertilizer. When saturated, the sawdust is spread on the gardens.

Of course, outhouses require space. But city-dwellers have options. My wife and I, for instance, do most of our toilet-flushing with either captured “gray water” from the shower or water from our rain barrels. That’s one reason that our water usage is about one-fourth the average household’s.

More advanced, plumbing-free options include a composting toilet, which is just what it sounds like, though I understand it’s not entirely legal in many municipalities. In fact, a fellow Western Pennsylvanian named Joseph Jenkins is author of the cult classic called The Humanure Handbook, which describes how to make your own composting toilet. The finished product is, I gather, great for gardens.

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A New Story of Us

I was reading a New Yorker piece about Dutch painter Frans Hals when this biographical sentence jumped out: “His father was a cloth-worker, and it made sense to settle in Haarlem, a flourishing center of the textile industries.”

This recounts events from about 1585. It’s been a very long time, in other words, that human affairs have revolved around (or within) urbanized industrial civilization, our fates governed by the logic of macroeconomic growth and, at the level of individuals, by economic struggle and competition.

Yet at the time Hals lived, most people didn’t live that sort of life. True, “globalization” had already begun, largely driven by the trans-Atlantic trade in slaves from Africa. But most of humanity didn’t yet live in big cities or take part in this kind of proto-capitalism. Millions in North America, Africa, South America, Asia, Australia and even Europe were still living as hunter-gatherers or small-scale village agriculturalists.

In Hals’ time, that is, the very crux of our modern understanding about what society is like (or for) and what people are like (and for) was not universal. It was just coming into being, though within a couple centuries – a blink of the eye in human history – it would be well on its way to taking over the world.

The notion that the world is a crate of “resources” that can be broken apart, bought and sold, and that humans are chiefly economic creatures, is not inherent in our nature. Nor is “economic growth” crucial to human survival, comfort or prosperity.

As Carolyn Merchant describes in her book The Death of Nature, for most of human history, all of these ideas would have been foreign to all living humans. Consider, for instance, the Native Americans’ inability to comprehend the European-introduced idea that the land can be portioned off, bought and sold.

People thought of life as they properly understood nature: as embodying a cyclical, not a linear narrative. One season turned through the next, a constant round of life becoming death feeding life, like dead leaves decomposing into living soil. Resources like land, game and water, meanwhile, were held in common rather than accumulated by specific individuals.

Our story of us now, half a millennia after Frans Hals, is very different. Life is about labor and consumption. Success is churning more of the natural world into consumer products, and burying whatever’s left over. The dead leaves, along with our banana peels and old shoes and cell phones, don’t become living soil. They become landfill.

The danger of this story is that it travels in only one direction. If we don’t have more – if there isn’t “economic growth” – we feel as though we are failing. Our story of us is up, up, up, and bigger, bigger, bigger, faster, faster, faster, no matter what it does to nature or to ourselves.

At some level – maybe not the deepest, but certainly not the most superficial – this is what’s behind our environmental crises. To enforce a linear story on a planet of cycles is not sustainable. That means it’s destructive. And because we rely on that planet totally, that means it’s suicidal.

I’ve been reading Charles Eisenstein’s new book Sacred Economics, about the meaning and uses of money. Eisenstein reminded me about this notion of the narratives that drive us forward. He calls the narrative that a culture lives by The Story of the People, and he has his own reads on why ours is so far off the mark. (His chief culprit, in what I’ve read so far, is the financial construct called “interest” – the idea that money can “grow” even though the natural riches it purportedly represents are constant.)

We need a new story. Maybe it’s actually an old one, or maybe a new version. But it’s got to be a story not of “more,” but of “enough.”

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Technology is Like a Flashlight

A recent trip to the woods reminded me of another use for the flashlight. It provides a useful metaphor for the limits and dangers of technology.

When you use a flashlight, you probably get the results you were aiming for: You can see the path in the woods, or find the fusebox in the basement.

What we’re less likely to consider is what happens to the relationship between the flashlight-user and whatever is outside the flashlight’s beam.

As our pupils dilate to accommodate themselves to the bright beam, we become increasingly unable to see whatever is outside that beam. In short, by becoming artificially sighted in one narrow area of focus, we become blind to everything else.

That’s not too much of a problem if the environment we’re in is a completely artificial one, like a house during a blackout. It might be more of a problem if we’re in the woods … watching the path inside our flashlight beam but unable to see, for instance, the bear by the side of the trail, or the tree perilously leaning overhead.

A couple of environmental stories illustrate the metaphor in the wider world.

Just read this morning about the Gulf of Maine lobster fishery ( It seems the lobster population is booming there. But that’s largely because lobsters have the run of the place: The swordfish, cod, halibut and other species that were once abundant as well – including lobsters predators — were all fished out.

Now the lobsters are sustained by baited traps, and both they and the lobstermen are having a field day.

But marine biologists warn that the ecosystem is perilously unbalanced. When one species is allowed (or in this case, encouraged) to grow beyond any natural bounds, it becomes more susceptible to things like disease. The Gulf has become the oceanic equivalent of what in agriculture is called a monocrop: a single species, cultivated over and over again.

One good round of infection could destroy the lobster population – and the Maine lobstermen’s livelihoods’ — just as surely as commercial fishing has destroyed the ancient balance between fish and other creatures in the ecosystem. (The article doesn’t discuss it, but one wonders what the absence of fish and the explosion of lobsters is doing to the health of marine plants, microorganisms, and fish that are not caught commercially.)

In this story, there’s sort of a twin flashlight beam: fishing technology and the human economy (the latter also being a kind of technology). These tools get us what we think we want – lobster rolls that are plentiful and cheap. So we say it’s good technology.

But this narrow success blinds us to greater dangers just outside the flashlight beam.

Another example. In India, cattle farmers started using a veterinary anti-inflammatory to help their animals grow. But the drug is toxic to vultures, who as scavengers often eat dead cattle.

The drug’s use contributed to a massive die-off of the vultures. But who cares? Who likes vultures anyway?

Turns out that fewer vultures means more of other scavengers, like rats and wild dogs. Oops. Both rats and dogs carry and transmit rabies.

And to the extent that vultures scavenged carrion that wasn’t a product of the human economy, the absence of vultures surely tips the ecosystem out of balance in other ways, too — ways that might not be understood for years. (Here’s an article about it all:

When in the woods, I try to carry a flashlight but to not use it unless it is necessary. Many nights, I find that once my eyes adjust to the dark, I can see quite well without the flashlight.

I still get where I’m going, if a little more slowly – and I can see the night, too, and the moon and stars that go with it.

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Poison Turkey is Us

The recall of 36 million pounds of ground turkey this past week by Cargill is not the result of some food-industry aberration. It’s completely predictable – simply the cost of doing business when food is an industry.

Cargill’s turkey was laced with antiobiotic-resistant salmonella. It has killed at least one person and sickened at least 77.

Such disasters are predictable because companies like Cargill are not producing food – they’re producing money.

Being in the business of making money rather than food means companies will take any legal shortcut (and maybe even some illegal ones), no matter how much those shortcuts harm the environment or what risk they pose to the people who buy the company’s products.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that food producers can’t be concerned with making a living. I buy a good deal of my food directly from small farmers, and most of them have been in the business for years.

But making a living isn’t what the Cargills of the world are interested in. What they’re interested in is maximizing profits.That’s a very different thing.

Small farmers want to make money, but they’re not dedicated to maximizing profits. Many are mission-driven, including many organic farmers are. They might be staying small by choice. Or perhaps they are merely declining to make growth their priority. In any case, they’re primarily concerned with making food.

The problem is that in a consumer-capitalist economy, cutting corners is just good business.

Case in point: The likely cause of the antibiotic-resistant salmonella in Cargill turkey was the heavy routine use of antibiotics on healthy turkeys. According to the FDA, U.S. farmers use about 29 million pounds of antibiotics on livestock each year – about four times as much as is used on people.

Cargill acknowledges routinely using the antibiotics on healthy animals simply to make them grow faster. If turkeys unhealthily crowded together in industrial feeding operations are anything like cows, pigs or chickens in similar circumstances, I imagine the antiobiotics are also meant to keep the animals from passing around the diseases of overcrowding.

But that’s just one of the kinds of corner-cutting that makes money. Spraying your crops with synthetic pesticides might sicken your workers, poison your customers and weaken the plants you grow, but you’re not penalized for those things by the only measure that counts: money. Pesticides maximize your profits, so you use them.

Using synthetic fertilizer supports the fossil-fuel industry (synthetic fertilizers are made from natural gas). It also sterilizes your soil and runs off into waterways, causing algae blooms that kill marine life. But you’re not penalized for those things by the only measure that counts: money. Synthetic fertilizer maximizes your profits, so you use it.

Packing livestock together in pens is inhumane. We know it results in vast quantities of animal waste that pollutes waterways and smells horribly. And it requires you to routinely use antibiotics on healthy livestock.

Meanwhile, profit-maximization demands that you feed animals food they’re not made to eat (corn for cows) and give them antiobiotics so they’ll grow faster. That might risk breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But that’s a risk you’re willing to take.

The really horrifying part is, until your food-product actually makes someone ill, all of this corner-cutting is perfectly legal. Producing low-quality food in a way that’s bad for the environment is just what you do. It is, as they say, business as ususal.

It was enough to make you laugh last week to hear from Sherrie Rosenblatt. She’s the National Turkey Federation vice president who, after the Cargill recall, was interviewed on NPR about the antibiotic use.

“We really believe that the responsible use of antibiotics to provide safe, nutritious, affordable foods is the appropriate way to go,” Rosenblatt told NPR.

As usual with spokes-flack statements, it’s hard to find a part of the statement that isn’t a lie of some sort.

Antibiotic-rich turkey is “safe”? Eh, maybe not.

It’s “nutritious”? Well, I guess if you don’t die from eating it, it does contain some of the nutritive properties of food. But I’d be surprised if industrial turkey were as nutritious as meat from a properly grown animal; we know, for instance, that produce grown organically is more nutritious that plants whose immune systems (and the soil they grow in, for that matter) have been weakened by overtreatment with chemicals.

And “affordable”? Yep, if you’re not paying for the damage industrial farming does – including antibiotic-laced turds running off into streams, and a bright future of mutation. And if you’re not paying the hospital bills. Then you can probably make turkey with a lower sticker price than someone who does it right.

But of course the main idea contained in Rosenblatt’s statement the really big lie. It’s to assure consumers of what they already implicitly assume: That Cargill is all about providing food. That this $10 billion multinational isn’t committed solely to making as much money as possible. That they’re really in it … for you!

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The Price of Food

A few weeks ago, I ran across a couple media reports that struck me as significantly if not obviously related.

One was a newspaper article about how farms, especially corn farms, are being targeted by speculators

The other was an NPR report about a town in Vermont with a lot of organic farms and a bumper crop of local agriculture in general – Hardiwick, dubbed in the title of a recent book “The Town that Food Saved.”

The connection that interests me isn’t just that both reports concern food. It’s that they’re both about what we think food is worth, or even what it’s for.

The USA Today article documented how speculators, seeing the rising price of both corn and farmland itself, are getting into the market. Global demand for grain is rising (and so is, unfortunately, demand for ethanol), but arable land is shrinking.

The NPR piece, meanwhile, told how Hardwick was reinventing itself as a symbol of the local-food movement – but also noted that food grown on small local farms costs more than stuff grown by agricultural giants and then shipped to Hardiwick from thousands of miles away.

The real-estate speculation is a prime example of what happens when agriculture isn’t about feeding people, but rather about capitalism. (It also indirectly demonstrates the effects of government corn subsidies, of course, and the fact that most U.S. corn is grown as either animal feed or ethanol; but leave those facts aside for now.) Actual farmers are priced off the land, which is now simply a commodity – as is the corn grown on it. In Stuffed and Starved, his great book about the global food crisis, Raj Patel demonstrates what this commodification means: We end up growing more food than we actually need (because to someone it makes economic sense to do so), but people still go hungry, because to someone it makes economic sense to stockpile food that’s “too cheap” rather than sell it.

Meanwhile, relatively few people are going hungry in a place like Hardiwick. The people there are instead the dubious beneficiaries of a system that provides them “cheap food” no matter what the cost. More people in Hardiwick are growing food in the way we know to be most healthful for both people and the planet – organically and nearby. But that food is seen by many as “too expensive” – because it must compete with food grown far away, in really destructive ways. (I see the same thing happen here when even customers at farmers’ markets bypass the lone organic stand for cheaper, nonorganic fare.)

The monocrops of corn and soybeans thousands of acres big; the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides those crops are doused with; the millions of gallons of fuel it takes to transport the crops to market – we don’t pay at the cash register for the havoc this all wreaks on air, land and water.

With soils made poorer, water tables drawn down and ecosystems dying, our current food system is one that can’t last. And we don’t even seem to mind that the produce we get this way isn’t fresh, or that the workers who harvest it might be poorly treated, or indeed even enslaved; or that the profits leave our communities (more of the money going to middlemen and marketers than to the farmers).

All of these destructive shortcuts instead redound to the advantage of the agri-giants – and to the detriment of small organic growers like those around Hardiwick, whom the price stickers penalize for doing things right.

Somewhere, the balance must be found again. We need to get back in touch with where our food comes from, yes – but also, the prices we pay must reflect the real and total cost of what it takes to produce that food. Would that make food unaffordable? I’m betting it wouldn’t, if we returned to treating food as a necessary gift of nature, rather than simply as part of someone’s stock portfolio.

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Bats and Wind Energy

Disturbing article today in our local rag out here in Pittsburgh. It’s about the toll the growing ranks of wind farms take on bats. On average, it’s estimated, each turbine kills 25 bats a year. The article also emphasizes what this means for farmers, who have lost the bat’s previously taken-for-granted insect-control services. Millions of potentially crop-munching bugs who once would have died now live.

The danger wind turbines pose for bats (and birds) has been known for a while, of course. But I feel especially compelled to comment because lately I’ve been telling people that my wife and I switched to an all-wind energy supplier, chiefly for environmental reasons.

As this blog often emphasizes, no source of electricity is free of impact on the environment. That’s why the best thing any of us can do to help the planet is to simply use less electricity. (Well, yeah, and less of everything.)

Of course, to make much difference this would have to be a national (really a global) project, and it would have ultimately to be a substantial reduction, not some feeble 10 percent. As a society, we should be aiming to reduce our electricity consumption by half – and then to cut it by half again. At least.

(If this sounds crazy, it’s not. My wife and I live in a regular old Pittsburgh rowhouse, and despite the fact that she has a home office, our electricity use is no more than one-third of what a typical household out here uses — pretty close to that half halved.)

Second, to those to whom this bad bat news suggests that we should abandon wind farms, consider the options. Coal supplies about 42 percent of American electricity. Do you contend that wind causes more environmental damage per kilowatt-hour than coal? I wouldn’t try to make that argument.

Strip-mining, including mountaintop-removal mining, decimates whole ecosystems in places like West Virginia. (MTR involves blasting the top 600 or so feet off a mountain to get at the coal inside, then burying a stream valley with the rubble.) And the poison slurry that results just from washing coal sits in big earthen impoundments throughout Appalachia, just awaiting an accident.

And that’s not to speak of the direct human cost of then burning that coal. Emissions from coal-fired power plants are full of lead, soot and mercury, raising rates of asthma and heart disease in neighboring areas and poisoning waterways, and the fish and other aquatic life there. And then you have toxic coal ash, which must be stored … forever.

Wind, meanwhile, whatever its drawbacks, has basically no emissions and no waste products.

Our other big sources of electricity are natural gas, nuclear and hydro. But each of these comes with its own costs, whether you’re drilling for gas, killing rivers with a dam or, you know, wondering when a tsunami’s going to turn the beach radioactive for the next 5,000 years.

Even solar energy is problematic, especially on the industrial scale required to satisfy large chunks of the power grid. Let’s not even consider the damage caused by the mining of the rare-earth metals it takes to do photovoltaic. Simply planting giant solar arrays in the desert, say, would devastate local ecosystems, probably in ways we haven’t even anticipated.

Point is, our energy-intensive society is the proverbial bull in a china shop. No matter which direction it turns, it’s going to wreck something. Even our best options for avoiding destruction – renewable energy sources — are still destructive. We should be switching to them as quickly as possible. But even more quickly, we should be figuring out how to use whatever power sources we employ as little as possible.

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