Can Capitalism Be Green?

Short answer: No.

But the question is complicated enough to warrant a longer answer.

One complication is that plenty of smart, environmentally committed people seem to think the answer is “yes” – people like Paul Hawken, author of books like The Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism. They think capitalism is reformable — that it can be made compatible with environmental sustainability.

Another such person is among the subjects of the documentary Food, Inc., which critiques the corporate food system. The film briefly profiles Gary Hirshberg, founder and head of Stonyfield Yogurt.

The firm started as a small organic-yogurt outfit. A decade ago, it was bought out by the multinational Danone. Hirshberg argues that capitalism is with us to stay, and so doing good within the system is imperative. He says he’d rather have Stonyfield get bigger and survive, assuring that at least a certain percentage of yogurt sold in the states doesn’t require releasing more pesticides into the environment.

Here the film injects an interesting note of ambiguity. The interview with Hirshberg is part of a sequence that includes a profile of Joel Salatin. Salatin runs Polyface Farm, the Virginia operation made famous in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Salatin argues that staying small and independent is the only way to produce food sustainably – that becoming part of a larger system (also known as “success”) inevitably leads to soul-crushing compromise.

Food, Inc. shows Stonyfield cutting a deal for distribution in Wal-Marts. To Hirshberg, this is a great success: helping a retail giant go organic, simply because that’s where it sees the market going. The ambiguity came in with a shot illustrating this capitalist triumph: a forklift in a huge warehouse moving around big cartons presumably containing Stonyfield yogurt. Salatin’s point couldn’t have been better illustrated: Once you’ve agreed to become part of the system, there’s less and less to distinguish you from it.

A clarification: Simply selling things isn’t capitalism. I don’t become a capitalist if my neighbor give me $1 for two zucchinis I’ve grown. Here’s the dictionary definition of capitalism: “An economic system characterized by freedom of the market with increasing concentration of private and corporate ownership of production and distribution means, proportionate to increasing accumulation and reinvestment of profits.”

From this concept, more or less born in 16th-century Europe, comes the logic of grow or die. Sufficiency isn’t sufficient. Hugeness is success. The bigger you are, the more you are celebrated.

The problem is those proto-capitalists bequeathed us the fundamental belief that the world of earth, water and air, of plants and minerals is, effectively, infinite, and that infinite growth is possible.

Once, on a less populated planet whose people didn’t burn fossil fuels, infinitude might have seemed real. The belief in infinitude is so ingrained that it takes effort to question it, even though we unquestionably no longer live on that planet. The minerals are running out, the water tables are running dry, the forests are torn up, the air overheated and poisoned.

The thing civilization called “growth” was always destruction, its costs (like degraded soils) written off and usually not even included in the price of the commodities it sold until it was too late (wheat could no longer grow).

Seriously, hats off to Stonyfield if it’s keeping a couple million pounds of pesticides a year from being sprayed. That’s great. But it’s also only a tiny fraction of the pesticides that get sprayed every year. And pesticides , meanwhile, constitute only a fraction of the damage national-scale yogurt-makers do – from packaging to shipping and more.

While it’s fair to praise those who are trying to do less damage, it’s not the action of any individual business (or consumer) that’s the trouble. The trouble is an economic system that’s based on exploiting the environment to make products and that depends on distributing those products as widely as possible, regardless of the actual need for those products.

Can there be a capitalism that doesn’t consume the planet? That doesn’t exploit every last finite “resource” regardless of the environmental consequences? That isn’t based on stoking the desires of humans for products ever more, ever newer?

One bit of proof, I think, is that for all the green talk you hear from business, and consumers, destruction of the environment continues apace. As we pat ourselves on the back for our revived consciousness, the forests fall (for beef or soy or palm oil). The water vanishes (for cotton or corn or livestock). The fish disappear. The earth warms.

Whatever little good its proponents might do, green capitalism is one of the most dangerous myths of all.

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It’s rare to find a single cause to explain so very large a chunk of a complex and intractable problem. But if the problem is the way our food system is out of whack — the way the price of the food we buy fails to reflect its cost – that explanation is the U.S. government’s corn subsidy.

Between 1995 and 2010, the federal government shelled out about $80 billion to prop up corn farmers, the Environmental Working Group has calculated. Those few billion a year in subsidies — direct payments, price supports, crop-insurance-premium subsidies — make it possible to sell corn for less than it costs to grow it.

What’s wrong with that? Well, when the subsidies began, about 40 years ago, we had pretty much all the corn we needed. But then corn got both cheaper and more plentiful, a dangerous combination. As detailed in excellent recent documentaries like “Food, Inc.,” and “King Corn,” now America’s growing industrial-scale food complex had to find new uses for the product.

That helped give us, for instance, high-fructose corn syrup, which as more people are learning in the wake of books like “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” is a big reason Americans themselves are getting bigger and bigger. (The obesity epidemic dates from just a few years after the introduction of the high-calorie, nutrient-free corn syrup into the marketplace, where it now inhabits most processed foods.)

The corn glut also made the grain the go-to feed for meat animals — especially cows, which can’t really digest it properly. As “Food Inc.” notes, that’s one big reason we have E coli. Most of the corn grown in the U.S. is feed corn, by the way (pigs and chickens eat it too, and even farmed fish).

There was so much cheap corn that we had to start exporting it — flooding the market in places like Mexico, where small farmers whose ancestors have grown the stuff for centuries were put out of business, many ultimately forced to come north to find work.

Farmers who now had a big incentive to grow corn had an effective disincentive to grow anything else. That raised the price of other crops and sped along the ecologically disastrous practice of monocropping, or planting hundreds of consecutive acres of land with exactly the same thing.

There’s even more to the ecological fallout of cornography. Corn is pesticide, herbicide and even genetically-modified-organism intensive, so if you like your food, you know, healthy … well, sorry.

And with cheap feed came the rise of the high-density animal feed lot, with not only inhumane conditions for the animals and worse food, but tons of manure to attempt to dispose of … or to run off into the waterways, take your pick.

Moreover, making animals cheaper to feed made meat cheaper. So Americans eat huge amounts of animal flesh — an environmentally ruinous proposition, because it requires ever more cropland and other resources to grow those animals.

Don’t get me wrong: In a consumer economy, our food system isn’t too much more screwed up than anything else. Any thing you turn into a commodity whose main function is to make money for its seller is going to get corrupted. Environmental damage will ensue, as will plenty of other suffering that’s not accounted for in the supermarket price tag.

But getting rid of the corn subsidy would be a huge step in the right direction. In fact, the U.S. Senate recently voted out another travesty, the subsidy for corn ethanol that came with its own set of unintended consequences, like rising corn prices.

Given the corn lobby’s power, such a vote would have been unthinkable even a year ago. And as it happens, the idiocy of corn ethanol will remain with us: Mandates for its use will ensure its continued production, even without subsidies.

Still, if one shovelful can be dumped back into this cornhole, why not two?

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What I’m Afraid Of

Some people – if they’re paying attention – are afraid of environmental catastrophes that will cause societal collapse. Giant storms, coastal flooding, famines, crushing energy shortages.

I fear something like the opposite: That society will simply keep going past the point where it’s possible to save anything of the long-term viability, not to mention the beauty, of nature.

Yet in darker imaginings, the latter outcomes seem much more likely. The oceans as we know them die from a combination of warming, toxins and the acidic effects of absorbing ever-greater quantities of carbon dioxide? This looks more of a certainty by the day. But we won’t respond by changing our ways, and trying to become sustainable.

Instead, we’ll respond as we always have (“always” here meaning “for the past century or so”): By finding and burning more fossil fuels to make up the deficits our insatiable appetitites create in nature.

No protein from the sea because of our industry and our industrial agriculture? We’ll make up the difference with more protein on the land, by dedicating even more (if possible) cropland to animal feed, already one of the biggest causes of deforestation, high grain prices, water pollution and carbon emissions.

At that point, what’ll there be to lose? No polar bears. No coral reefs. No tundra, no boreal forest. Just double down.

Oil’s gone? Switch to methane (also known as “natural gas”) blown from ever deeper inside the earth with ever-bigger quantities of water and chemicals. So it adds to the greenhouse-gas burden? What have we got to lose?

More coal from shattered mountains? No other animal species could live on that land, or in the warmer and warmer streams we dump the rubble into anyhow. Bombs away. What have we got to lost?

If it happens this way, it’ll be because of cultural inertia. We’ve never been able to accept less – want less, use less. We can imagine only “more.” And it’ll be because as long as they last, there’ll always be money in mining fossil fuels – but never any money in not using them, in letting them lie.

And by the time we finally decide to change our minds, there won’t be much left to save.

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Picking on Pundits

If one is singling out pundits to critique on environmental grounds, it might seem unfair to pick on David Brooks. After all, the New York Times bigfoot is no denier of climate change, for instance, like his ideologically addled Washington Post colleague George Will.

But Brooks’ seeming reasonableness actually makes him the perfect person to single out: He is representative of the way even seemingly reasonable people can enumerate the day’s putative key issues without even mentioning climate change, let alone the host of other environmental crises we face.

A Brooks column this week is a case in point. In it, Brooks protests that the upcoming presidential election will stink to cover because neither party has any good new ideas for addressing the most important issues.

Fair enough. But here’s his list of issues: “unsustainable levels of debt, an inability to generate middle-class incomes, a dysfunctional political system, the steady growth of special-interest sinecures and the gradual loss of national vitality.”

Those are all real problems (even if Brooks’ psychologically telling word choice – “inability to generate … dysfunctional … loss of national vitality” – sounds culled from a Viagara ad).

But nowhere in the column is there a peep about rising sea levels and disappearing coasts; rivers drying up out west, and aquifers in the Midwest; tropical rainforests vanishing because of our demand for beef and soy; the fact that to maintain our fuel-wasting society we’re courting ecological disaster by blowing up mountains for coal, and drilling for oil deeper and further out to sea.

“National vitality”? How about the topsoil that industrial farming practices send gushing into the ocean? Or the gigantic Gulf of Mexico dead zone, also the result of agricultural runoff, that’s making the gulf less hospitable to the seaborne protein so many rely upon?

Of course, you could argue that Brooks is simply outlining the issues that will be big in the campaign. But aren’t pundits obligated to point out the things that actually matter most, not just what the electorate is worried about? They certainly don’t hesitate to do so when chiding us about things like what Brooks, for instance, calls “making sure nobody ever touches Medicare.”

And isn’t eating as fundamental to “national vitality” as you can get?

I don’t expect a center-right guy like Brooks to be a Thomas Friedman, another Times-man, and probably the most widely syndicated newspaper pundit who regularly acknowledges the huge problems presented by climate change, peak oil and the like. In writings like his book Hot, Flat and Crowded, Friedman demonstrates an admirable big-picture grasp of such issues, even if the solutions he proposes are too mild by half.

But even pundits who don’t get it like Friedman gets it usually at least nod toward the need to address, at least, climate change. Even if they don’t understand that human civilization is pushing the planet to the brink of ecological collapse, they at least know that hotter temperatures and warmer, deeper oceans mean crazy weather, displaced persons and less food, and argue that we should do something about it, like reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

That a big name like Brooks is so concerned with what he calls “growth ideas” and his “Hamiltonian/National Greatness perspective” that he doesn’t even feel the need to mention the perilous changes to the very climate that facilitated the rise of agriculture – without which civilization as we know it is impossible – is a measure of how deep our society’s denial on these matters runs.

That’s not just Brooks’ fault, of course. It’s almost everybody’s. But we can’t go on acting as though our problems are all about making the books balance with the arbitrary units of measurement we call money. When nature’s books go far enough out of balance, we’ll see how misguided we’ve been.

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The Death of Nature

Reading Carolyn Merchant’s touchstone 1980 book The Death of Nature, you realize that the environment crises are not due, at root, to particular human behaviors. The problem is not, in other words, simply that we’re driving cars, eating beef and playing ice hockey in Tampa in June.

The problem, rather, is the entire way we think about the natural world.
Merchant’s book documents the great shift in consciousness that took place in Western societies, mostly between 1500 and 1700. In very broad terms, at the start of this time period, most people viewed nature as an organic entity – a living being, like an animal. By its end, people saw the world as a machine, something that could be taken apart, reassembled and exploited at human pleasure.

When that time period began, nature was a mother, a bountiful giver, the generous source of life. When it ended, she was a coy mistress, a hider of secrets who must be forced to surrender them. (Merchant’s analysis is explicitly feminist.)

In ancient times, when nature was exploited, people did it somewhat apologetically, or at least thankfully (as in Native American propitiation for the hunt); by 1700, as now, nature was exploited boastfully, as in a military conquest.

In documenting this momentous shift, Merchant names many familiar thinkers: Locke, Bacon (a midwife to the modern notion of “progress” through “mastery” of nature); Descartes (who popularized the view of nature as machine); Hobbes; and Newton, who in the 17th century created the intellectual world that we still inhabit, one in which nature consists of dead, mindless atoms animated by God’s laws – a model for how humans are to treat the earth as well.

Of course, prior to 1500, humans did exploit the earth, even to the point where civilizations collapsed. And much of the ravages of the industrial age are due to humanity’s sheer numbers. Would all this be true if those 7 billion just thought differently?

Ah, but those numbers, too, are largely due to the scientific mindset, one whose approach to agriculture, etc., allowed (forced?) humanity to increase its numbers beyond the earth’s carrying capacity.

Moreover, as Merchant incisively notes, it is easy to trace how the intellectuals who were developing this new mindset espoused ideas that dovetailed quite nicely with those of the ruling class – especially the rising proto-capitalist merchants, like the ones who in England enclosed the commons, drained the marshes, and built the trade vessels for whose oaken timbers Britain was stripped of its once-glorious old-growth forests.

The scientific revolution was the ideological water-carrier the nascent global capitalism that would, in a very brief time relative to human history, bully the entire planet to the brink of ecological collapse.

“Living animate nature died, while dead inanimate money was endowed with life,” Merchant writes of the scientific revolution’s fallout. “Increasingly capital and the market would assume the organic attributes of growth, strength, activity, pregnancy, weakness, dcay, and collapse obscuring and mystifying the new underlying social relations of production and reproduction that make economic growth and progress possible.”

When the earth is a machine, one part is as good as another, or as meaningless. And the world is become piecemeal, without any sense of how removing one piece – an ore, a stream, a species – can affect or even destroy the whole.

Modern ecological study and other forms of systemic thinking (to say nothing of quantum physics) still struggle to understand what people whom European philosophers derided as “primitive” knew – no part is the same without the whole, no whole the same without all its parts.

Our attitude toward nature remains stuck in the 17th century. Would that it could be stuck in the 12th.

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Growing Problem

A probably unintended consequence of the mania for gas-drilling in Pennsylvania is a new focus on the struggles of family farms.

According to news accounts and the gas industry’s own propaganda, small farmers throughout the state are cheerfully signing leases to allow drilling for shale gas on their land because the bonuses and royalties are necessary, or next to it, for them to even stay on the land.

We’ve been hearing about the plight of the American family farm for so many decades now that it’s hard to believe that any remain. The first Farm Aid concerts were in the mid-1980s, but industrial-scale agricultural outfits have been eroding their numbers since World War II, farms getting fewer and bigger.

Let’s grant that these remaining small-scale vegetable-growers, dairy farmers and livestock-raisers are truly so hard up they don’t have any other choice but to risk poisoning the land, air and water we all use, simply for the money.

But there’s a more basic question: How can it be that our society offers a living to pedicurists and the makers of reality-TV shows but not to the people who grow our food? Moreover, there’s apparently plenty of profit in transporting, processing and retailing food. It’s only the most important part of the process that’s economically insupportable.

There are plenty of reasons for this, but to cite just one: Food is too cheap.

Agricultural policies like the 40-year-old subsidy for corn-growers glut the market. (That the vast majority of U.S. corn goes toward either animal feed or fuel is surely another huge problem.) In 1930, Americans spent nearly 25 percent of their incomes on food; now it’s less than 10 percent, notwithstanding the fact that people eat out much more than they did even 30 years ago.

Moreover, even blaming farmers for food prices is absurd. The USDA recently calculated that farmers themselves receive less than 12 cents on the American consumer’s food dollar.

Another issue is the very industrialization of the food supply. The agriculture that feeds most Americans is completely dependent on fossil fuels, from the natural gas feedstock for synthetic fertilizers to the diesel that runs the tractors. This is “cheaper” than organic and manual means – but only if you discount the environmental havoc the industrial approach yields, from carbon emissions to the huge “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico fed by fertilizer runoff.

If we don’t properly value food, we won’t properly value farmers. And they’ll keep feeling they have to risk the land they farm to save their place on it.

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Energy Traps

The trouble with the way we talk about energy is that we talk only about energy.

Energy sources – mostly fossil fuels, but also nuclear and hydroelectric – are not created or exploited in a void. Their production and use have consequences for nature and for people, and not just the consequences we desire.

Our talk about energy seem to recognize this on some level. We confront the bigger problems with oil, for instance, when there’s a big oil spill, or when we discuss climate change. Many of us also recognize the secondary damage done by hunting and drilling for oil, like the access canals dug on the Gulf Coast that destroy sensitive ecosystems and eliminate buffering from ocean-borne storms.

In Pennsylvania, we hear about mountaintop-removal coal-mining; streams acid-orange from coal waste; air made toxic by coal-burning power plants; and water poisoned by gas drilling.

Funny, though – when we talk about how to do away with dirty energy, there’s an implicit assumption that regardless of what happens, we’ll keep using the same amount of energy we do now.

Carbon-heavy but nonrenewable stuff like petroleum and coal have long provided the world’s affluent with vast quantities of energy, all at a monetary cost that comes nowhere near reflecting the damage they do. But somehow, we think we’ll replace all those cheap BTUs, just without causing environmental harm.

Thus people imagine a future where there’s no oil, coal or natural gas – but there’s somehow still two cars per oversized house heated (or cooled) to 72 degrees year-round. Still affordable air travel, endless supplies of electronic gadgets and fresh strawberries in Manhattan in February.

This is a dangerous delusion for several reasons. Our entire civilization is built on the assumption of eternally available low-dollar energy. That assumption is embodied in every interstate highway, airport runway, every poly fiber of our clothes and every synthetically fertilized bite of organic rice. If energy gets more expensive, so does everything else.

And energy is going to get more expensive, largely because of peak oil. If we are not prepared to use much less energy, there is going to be more pressure on governments to produce more of other energy sources to compensate.

More coal mining. More gas drilling of the kind that’s already puncturing every other square mile of parts of places like Wyoming. And the cheapest remaining energy sources will be very dirty indeed. In some cases, as with the insane “tar sands” mining operations that are devastating places like the boreal forests of Edmonton, Canada, the mad search for oil substitutes will be much dirtier even than the hunt for petroleum.

So why not renewables? That’s the preferred solution of most clean-energy advocates.

The problem is two-fold. One, while wind and solar are surely an improvement on oil and coal, they still have costs. Wind turbines, as we know, kill birds and bats. Solar arrays of the industrial scale people envision would wreak havoc with the sort of desert ecosystems where many of them would be located. And the industrial infrastructure for both energy sources – the windmills, the photovoltaic cells, the circuitry – require large amounts of rare-earth metals whose mining and processing would cause much environmental damage.

Moreover, because wind and solar have space requirements that fossil-fuels extraction doesn’t, there’s a real limit to how much of these resources we can truly (as opposed to theoretically) harvest.

Mostly, though, the problem is that we’ve yet to come to grips with the idea that we can’t have energy that’s as cheap and abundant as it is now, forever, and have a healthy planet, too. We’ve long since passed that point.

It’s not going to help much to ramp renewables up to, say 20 percent of total energy use over a period of years – like many U.S. plans at the state and federal level suggest – if we also keep using more energy. That’s just postponing the inevitable.

(Such plans are also insufficiently ambitious: A new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for instance, estimates that “[c]lose to 80 percent of the world’s energy supply could be met by renewables by mid-century if backed by the right enabling public policies” – and they’re not even considering big power-downs by the nations of the energy-gluttonous West.)

The problem, in other words, is that humanity simply uses more energy than the planet can afford. This will end with peak oil … or a little later, when the natural gas runs out … or it will end with planetary ecosystem collapse largely but not entirely driven by climate change, spiralling into dead oceans and spasms of flood, drought and other extreme weather.

We have to reduce the absolute amount of energy we use, and by quite a lot. Europeans per capita use half the energy Americans do — and they could do better, too.

We have to quickly get total energy use down to where we could supply basically all of it with renewables. (If climatologists are right, the “mid-century” timeline the IPCC cites is going to be way too late to help.)

I think it’s possible if we really want to do it. Of course, the energy interests that control our state and local governments will do their best to prevent movement in the direction either of renewable energy or deep conservation. They’ll say it’ll cost us jobs – never mind that our current path is costing us everything.

We have to stop thinking about how to continue to live the high-energy lifestyles the rich part of the planet now takes for granted. We have to start living within the planet’s own limits.

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Dead Reckonings

All the celebrating over the death of bin Laden this past week suggests that a great victory has been won for mankind.

I’d suggest not quite the opposite: that the celebration itself, when compared to our indifference or even hostility to solving far larger and more pressing problems, suggests we are as far as ever from fixing what most ails us.

Example: This past Wednesday, three days after bin Laden’s death, my hometown paper was still putting the aftermath on the front page. Relegated to page 3, meanwhile, was a news account of a report from the Oslo-based Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Project. The report concludes that climate change is raising sea levels far faster than was thought even a few years ago, and predicts that melting ice and snow will help raise sea levels by up to 5 feet by 2100.

That’s bad news for any of the hundreds of millions of people in the world who live in a low-lying coastal area. Or who rely on the food grown, hunted or fished there. Or who’d prefer those areas remain land as a buffer from hurricanes and other types of extreme weather – or even as a repository of irreplaceable plant and animal species.

And that’s not to mention the other threats climate change poses — like the one to the glaciers that supply so much of the world’s easily accessible fresh water.

So bin Laden is dead. A villain for sure. But his lone successful attack in the U.S. in the past decade, while horrifying, failed to incapacitate a single major city for very long. Let alone the nation. Let alone the global community. He was not, as the pundits like to say, an “existential threat.”

Meanwhile, global destruction of an ongoing and long-lasting sort is exactly what climate change promises: an existential threat. And the failure of national governments to come to any kind of binding agreement to halt climate change, or to address its effects, drew not much more than sighs in the mass media. Congress’ failure to pass even watered-down legislation to slow U.S. emissions of greenhouse gasses was barely more lamented.

Plenty of people, in fact, were happy about it – oil companies, coal companies, climate-change deniers, free-market conservatives. And it’s little stretch to say that some of these people were the same ones who were cheering loudest when bin Laden’s death was announced.

The public at large cheered along. We are reluctant, it seems, to undertake long and complicated projects that will require altering our lifestyles, even if these projects – reducing energy use, getting off fossil fuels, etc. – would help ensure our long-term survival. Instead, we’re primed to dance at displays of violent revenge and bursts of national triumphalism, even if they little effect how we’ll live today or tomorrow, let alone 50 years from now.

Fifty years from now. The world may well be, or be much further on its way toward becoming, a toxic hump of sterile fields, stripped forests and dead oceans lapping at the heads of former freshwater streams. It’s hard to imagine people then will be thinking, At least we got bin Laden. Easier to imagine they’ll look back and see us as we are, swatting at shadows on the wall while the foundations of our house slid out from beneath us.

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Less How, More Why

As humans, we are drawn to stories. And when we hear stories, we naturally take the side of the protagonist, even if that protagonist is an anti-hero: We’re pulling for him, regardless of whether he’s an outlaw, a greedy bastard or worse.

This also means that we’re drawn into the hero’s journey. The thing the hero is doing becomes worthwhile, even important, simply because the hero is doing it. The more beguiled we are by the hero, the more drawn into the narrative, the less likely we are to question what it is he or she is about.

And the more likely, meanwhile, we are to want to know how – how the heist will be pulled off (if the hero is a crook), the crook caught (if the hero is a cop) or the battle won.

For instance, I just finished reading a book about Custer’s Last Stand, and while I’m glad the Sioux pulled that one out, when the author was describing the travails faced by Custer’s men from their point of view, I found myself hoping they’d succeed. And I suspect cavalry fans would feel the same when reading from the Sioux perspective.

Wanting to know how, too, is a basic human impulse. But it so consumes us as to be dangerous. It makes us lose sight of why we do things. Tell us how robber barons amassed their fortunes, or how investment bankers plundered the economy, and we’re bound to at least end up admiring their craftiness, forgetting for a moment or longer the damage they did.

These impulses do something else too. They enable environmental plunder. Show us coal miners toughing it out two miles underground, we want to know how, and we simply stop asking why we are still powering civilization with one of the dirtiest fuel sources possible. Frame the debate about shale-gas drilling as one about “jobs,” and we’ll be less inclined to ask about how the process poisons the land, air and water.

On the grandest scale, of course, this is about the whole megillah we’re pleased to call “the economy.” We want to hear about how the independent coffee-house made a go in Starbucksland. How the airline fixed its cashflow problems. How the contractor reinvented his business to meet the demands of a changing marketplace (as a business magazine might put it).

The economy’s end is to produce “wealth,” but our definition of wealth is blind to the ways our economy harms the natural world on which we ultimately depend.

Why do we sell clothes that people are going to throw out in six months? Why in fact is our whole economy based on how fast we can siphon wealth from the earth and then either turn it into pollution or trash as fast as possible? (From an “economic” perspective, the faster the better, of course.)

The economy needs to be about meeting people’s needs – the right “why” – while preventing further harm to the planet, and correcting the damage we’ve already done. The credo of “how” leads us to throwaway products, toxic rivers and melting icecaps. It’s Thoreau’s “improved means to an unimproved end,” only on a scale he never imagined.

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Compostal Service

One of the real treats of living in Backwards Land is watching your fellow citizens eagerly dig from the ground substances that ought to stay there, while burying materials we desperately need.

And so we have coal and petroleum and natural gas, just for starters, exhumed to poison the land, water and air in myriad ways. And then we take minerals we’ve dug from the ground, turned at great cost into metal, and a few weeks or months later bury them without a second thought.

We do the same with something that’s a lot more easily recycled: Food.

Americans, it’s estimated, throw out almost half the food we grow. It could go back to soil, to help us make more food or nurture forests. But instead it sits in landfills, where – if the sunless, anaerobic environment allows it to decompose at all – it produces great billows of methane, so that we might warm the atmosphere faster still.

Encouraging people to think differently about the environment, on a very fundamental level, is the purpose of this blog. Composting might seem an obvious, and widely known, remedy. But any country that simply discards 34 million tons of hard-won organic matter each year is not only regarding as valuable things that are actually detrimental (fossil fuels, etc). It’s also regarding as useless stuff that’s actually valuable.

Here’s a column I wrote about composting, and a local small-scale commercial practitioner of same, for the weekly publication that employs me.

I’ll also add that the owner of the larger composting service mentioned in this article phoned me to object that her company was portrayed in a bad light. That certainly wasn’t my intention; I believe that company performs a useful service. However, as you’ll also see, commercial pick-up and dropoff composting operations have their limitations environmentally speaking as well.

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