Perfect Oysters; Imperfect Produce

I rarely open the NYTimes Style Magazine but last year one of its headlines caught my eye, asking, in 23 point New Times Roman,  “With Cultivation Have Oysters Become Too Perfect?

 

The essay summarizes oyster farming’s history (which apparently dates from ancient Rome) and oyster popularity (which has waxed and waned for generations).  The article ends with a description of the way modern aquaculture methods produce a handsome standardized product year-round with fewer of the risks and less of the romance of the wildlings of the past.

 

Come to think of it, that’s something which can said about much of modern life.  Crossing the country in a covered wagon in 1840 must have been a lot more romantic than a commute to work but the per mile risk of dying on the Oregon trail was 0.167% compared to the .000001% risk of driving a mile in 2008.

 

Of course eating a wild oyster isn’t as risky as trekking the Oregon trail but you can still die of cholera or cut yourself on the razor sharp shell.  Meanwhile the farmed ones are checked regularly for pathogens and often tumbled by their growers to knock off those nasty sharp edges and , as one grower brags, tumbling makes their shells “prettier”.

 

 

The Merriam, Webster Dictionary defines “pretty” as “pleasing in a delicate way”.  That may be stretching it a bit as a descriptor of tumbled oysters but it does seem to properly describe a quality present in abundance in the produce section of grocery stores.  Its pursuit has surely boosted the bottom line of pesticide manufacturers – thereby threatening butterflies, honey bees and who knows how many other arthropods – and that standardized perfection is a major hardship for organic farmers since their crops often rank low on the prettiness spectrum.

 

Recognizing that produce falling below the aesthetic standard of grocery chains often was destined to rot in the field or in a farm’s compost pile proved inspirational to the entrepreneurial founders of “Imperfect Produce” whose mission is “to eliminate food waste and build a better food system for everyone.”

By strengthening the market for fruits and vegetables that don’t look exactly like the archetypal apples and beets on the pages of children’s books the company claims to help farmers, make food more affordable and help the environment by reducing pesticide, fertilizer and water used to grow food that would eventually go to waste.  We signed up a while back and have been entirely happy with the way the food tastes, sometimes even entertained by the way it looks, and consistently feeling self righteous in that we were doing right by the planet……. until we came across an article in the New /Republic.

 

Not so fast, the author said:  sounds like greenwashing. Aren’t these folks just competing for produce that would otherwise be sold to outfits that don’t care about looks like catsup producers and cider makers?   Or, worse, wouldn’t much of that produce otherwise be donated to food banks or scavenged by gleaners? And, since they won’t reveal their sources, aren’t they just another customer for corporate agriculture. Meanwhile those oyster farmers trumpet how their hundreds of thousands of caged and tumbled shellfish prevent coastal “dead zones:” by purging  our estuaries and coastal lagoons of excessive algae from our overzealous use of fertilizer. Side effects, however, are that their mechanized power equipment contributes to our atmospheric CO2 load while the areas they’ve leased from the state are off-limits for recreational use by fishermen, clammers, skin divers, and kayakers.

 

It’s hard to disagree that both perfect produce and pretty oysters accomplish little more than catering to our whims, but some  say the benefits are simply not worth the costs. Both sides have their points but something gets lost in the argument. I don’t think many people find grocery shopping exciting.   All that familiar packaging. All those time-worn logos lining the shelves. The soulless pyramids of carefully stacked identical apples – all precisely the same size, shape and shade of Granny Smith green.  In contrast, there’s actually a bit of adventure when it comes to opening the week’s Imperfect Produce delivery and discovering a corkscrew carrot or, as one happy customer exclaimed, “a sweet potato as big as my head !”.  It’s a feeling not entirely unrelated to slurping a misshapen wild oyster and then marveling at its uniquely ugly shell. As our corporate culture gets better at discerning every detail of what maximizes sales, and as economies of scale wipe out the variety afforded by competition, our lives themselves bit by bit become standardized.  And as each of our whims and caprices are met at lower and lower personal costs our individual skills at doing things for ourselves atrophy. Personal creativity – a quality often stimulated by a surprising turn of events or an unexpected variation – ceases to be necessary or inspired. And the deep sense of fulfillment, and personal accomplishment achieved by making one’s own life better in a uniquely idiosyncratic way is diminished.

 

A while back, on a road trip out West, my son and I stopped for lunch in a small Montana town.  On one side of the street was a modest mom and pop luncheonette; on the other, a familiar pair of golden arches with its predictably satisfying hamburgers.  We talked over the choice and although we both liked Big Macs well enough we took a chance on the luncheonette. The owner turned out to be a talkative woman and rather than repeating a well-rehearsed corporate script she chatted with us about the area as we watched her carefully assemble our sandwiches on the other side of the bar.  Among the things she told us was that off on a side road on the way out of town there was a bunch of folks from The Smithsonian digging for dinosaurs. That unexpected tip led to an unforgettable adventure exploring a bonafide paleologic dig site. Sometimes taking a chance really pays off. Modern grocery chains, oyster farmers and fast food franchises give us predictability. In exchange, we lose something which is easy to overlook but hard to articulate.  An economist might call it an opportunity cost.

 

Chemistry has given us those bins of archetypic apples, but in the process we’ve quietly lost some beautiful butterflies while Harvard labs work on miniature drones to pollinate crops in case bees disappear.  We have food science to thank for those perfectly predictable burgers which have so successfully outcompeted the quirky mom and pop operations. The electrifying frisson one experiences on hearing a sound outside one’s tent while camping in Yellowstone Park disappears if apex predators are exterminated because they may reduce the incomes of ranchers’ by taking an occasional calf,  born, incidentally, on public national forest land leased by the rancher for grazing.

 

H.G. Wells, in  The Time Machine, creates a distant dystopian future occupied in part by the Eloi, one future branch of the human race shaped by progress:  “For countless years I judged there had been no danger of war or solitary violence, no danger from wild beasts,…… no need of toil…….They were…. delicate ones” …of …“childish simplicity, decayed to mere beautiful futility, physical and intellectual inadequacy…..And the little people displayed no vestige of a creative tendency. …….. They spent all their time in playing gently, in bathing in the river, in making love in a half-playful fashion, in eating fruit and sleeping …..A flow of disappointment rushed across my mind. Strength is the outcome of need; security sets a premium on feebleness. The work of ameliorating the conditions of life—the true civilizing process that makes life more and more secure—had gone steadily on to a climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another.”  A bit of an overstatement of the point I am trying to make, but beautifully articulated.

 

In his contemporary best seller, Enlightenment Now, Stephen Pinker takes the opposite tack. Extolling the Enlightenment’s methods of thought and the value of quantification, he exhaustively catalogues  (556 pages, 120 graphs, 1297 footnotes) the undeniable and well-known benefits of the modern age. But since technology and the scientific method rely heavily on measurement, Pinker necessarily gives short shrift to the non-quantifiable.  Ignored in his cost-benefit analysis of the Enlightenment’s methods of thought are the thrill of exploring the unknown, the deep pleasure of creating or experiencing beauty, the joy of a happy surprise, the zen of immersion in the natural world, the pride in triumph over adversity,  the wonder of viewing the stars in total darkness. Yes, many of us are warm, comfortable, healthy and well fed, but like the individual whose only tool is a hammer, we keep looking for nails to pound even if, in the process of pounding, less visible things of great value are destroyed.

 

The crucial challenge of our age is how to deploy our intellectual gifts to escape the addictive power of satisfying our every material whim and caprice at the expense of slowly cooking our planet, driving out of existence a majority of it’s non-human life forms and extinguishing a great many of the profound ineffabilities which are so easily overlooked but much more deeply satisfying.  I do not claim to know the answers to these questions, but in the meantime while I’m working on them I think I’ll go to the grocery, pick up a dozen beautiful farmed oysters and enjoy myself.

 

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Skunks, Sea Lions, Moose, Mice and Us

I paid a fair amount of attention to skunks during childhood vacations on the Rhode Island shore where my folks built a small cottage just before I was born.  The area had been mostly pasture until the 1920’s and by the ‘40s it was reverting to early scrub crisscrossed with stone walls. Most of the cottages were built on piers and the combination of stone walls, scrub habitat and cottage crawl spaces was perfect skunk habitat. The small lawn around each one often showed evidence of nocturnal skunk work as the animals dug for grubs, earthworms  and other mustelid fare.

 

Skunks lent an air of high adventure to any nighttime foray.   A flashlight was a must – its beam sweeping side to side in search of black and white stripes.  Once, when an exceptionally long afternoon Monopoly game at a friend’s house was followed by a flashlightless walk home after dark, a too-close-for-comfort encounter remains burned in my memory.  But years later when my then-widowed mother spent summers in the cottage alone, skunks provided considerable peace of mind. “Need to keep my guard dogs happy.” she’d explain as she tossed out food scraps in the evenings when I was visiting.

 

Over the past several decades things have changed.  Located, as it is, halfway between New York and Boston the place has attracted urban big money and nearly all the cellarless small cottages built up on piers so plumbing could be drained from beneath each fall have been replaced by substantial “summer homes”.   And to be honest, we’ve contributed to the trend – disassembling the original cottage and reusing as much of it as we could while building a year round house large enough to accommodate our children and grandchildren for lovely family vacations together.  But the skunks are gone.

 

It wasn’t intended.  We didn’t mean to make my mother’s guard dogs homeless.  But now they exist only in the realm of family lore. Meanwhile our neighborhood lawns are awash in chemical grubicides.  

 

Nowadays we spend part of each year on the west coast where sea lions have been in the news.  They’re members of a select group of non-human species with a high brain to body size ratio – joining elephants and dolphins and bypassing our primate relatives –  chimpanzees, monkeys and gorillas. They’ve been shown to solve IQ tests that many humans have trouble passing.  A captive California sea lion studied by the Long Marine Lab at the University of California, Santa Cruz could use basic logic (If A=B and B=C then A=C).  In rankings of zoo animals’ popularity sea lions rank just behind llamas and ahead of rhinoceroses .  One poll respondent said “Sea lions are cute, friendly, playful, happy and loving sea creatures.”   

But their populations are fragile.  As numbers approached endangered species levels in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, the US congress passed the Marine Mammal Population Protection Act in 1972.  That law according to the US Fish and Wildlife service, prohibits, with certain exceptions, the “take of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas…”    Why, then, is the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife now killing them?  It’s a long story.

 

In the 1920’s the US Congress appropriated funds for the Army Corps of Engineers to examine ways the Columbia River might be developed to benefit flood control, navigation, irrigation and electricity – an action which had been advocated over a decade earlier by President Theodore Roosevelt’s Inland Waterways Commission.   In 1932 the Corps submitted their “308 report” whose recommendations found their way into then candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s campaign promises and reached their denouement with FDR’s speech dedicating the completed Bonneville Dam on September 28, 1937.  Consideration of ways to mitigate the dam’s impact on salmon migration was begun only after construction was well underway. Fish ladders and bypasses were thus retrofitted and subsequent improvements in the fish bypass system have resulted in gradual recovery of salmon runs after the dramatic decline of stocks caused by interrupting the river’s free flow.    But here’s the thing:  before keying in on these bypass routes many endangered salmon now congregate in the area just below the dam.

 

Like humans, sea lions have the capacity for culture – defined by some as the accumulation of  knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends on the ability to learn and then transmit knowledge to others and then to succeeding generations.  They share another human trait as well which makes the Oregon Fish and Wildlife service’s step towards specicide more understandable. Like Homo sapiens,  Zalophus californianus relishes salmon.  Eventually, a few sea lions venturing upstream in the Columbia discovered the salmon smorgasbord below the dam and, intelligent and generous creatures which they seem to be, spread the word among other members of their tribe:  “There’s an easy feast to be had just a short swim up the Columbia.”

 

It is no small irony that the president who started the ball rolling towards this dilemma was the same one who established the US Forest Service, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, The National Wildlife Refuge System, doubled the number of sites within the National Park system and is considered by many to be the “conservation president”.   And it is even a less small irony, it seems to me, that the same creature which built the dam to improve its quality of life is now planning to kill off another creature (whose existence it had also once threatened) because it is taking advantage of a situation the first creature has created!    

 

In spite of our good intentions we certainly have a way of muddling things up.  In the 1950’s scientists discovered that the blood of horseshoe crabs contained properties that can very efficiently detect bacterial contamination of biological preparations like vaccines.  Horseshoe crab populations, already under pressure as a source of bait in crab and lobster pots, fell dramatically as their blood was harvested for this purpose. Then birders noticed that the red knot – a shorebird famous for performing one of the longest migrations known – was in serious decline.  Why? It turns out that a series of critical refueling stations along the route make it possible for these five ounce feathered fluffballs to fly from the arctic to the antarctic and back every year.

One of the critical refueling stops? – the Chesapeake Bay horseshoe breeding grounds.   For millennia the ancient crustaceans have been depositing billions of high energy eggs on the bay’s mudflats and red knot migration has evolved to correspond exactly with the blessed events.  Better detection of human infection, fewer horseshoe crab eggs, more malnourished red knots arriving on arctic breeding grounds, fewer knot eggs, fewer knots.

 

Of course, sometimes our species’ behavior unwittingly has actually boosted wildlife populations.  Our eating habits have been very beneficial for Mus musculus, North America’s native house mouse.  The mice have returned the favor and enhanced our population a bit by becoming a critical part of many successful medical research projects.  We’ve also given quite a boost to Periplaneta americana, AKA the American cockroach !

 

Sometimes our relationship with other species gets really complicated. Since the 1940’s Lake Superior’s Isle Royale National Park  has been home to a population of moose and some wolves. Over the years, the moose population has oscillated between 2300 and 700 and the wolf population between  50 animals and 12 – the balance between predator and prey keeping the herbivores from destroying their finite food supply and providing a living laboratory for a variety of ecological studies reported in hundreds of papers in scientific journals. This was how “nature” was supposed to work.  Recently, however, at the nadir of one of the wolf population oscillations, a confluence of events – accidents, illnesses, inbreeding – has brought the wolf population down to two – a nine year old male and his seven year old daughter/half-sister – both now geriatric animals.  What’s to be done? The response on the part of biologists, National Park Officials, and The Ecological Research Institute – after considerable thought – has been to capture wolves from elsewhere and replenish the Isle Royale population. So much for keeping National Parks “natural”.

 

There is a longstanding conversation about whether or not we humans are a part of or separate from “nature ”.   Most modern religions and many political conservatives hold the view that man and nature are separate. The idea spans millennia from the Old Testament’s charge that man “subdue” the earth  “and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” to an article in   Forbes magazine entitled, “In the Battle of Man vs. Nature, Give Me Man”, which urges that we “…… give a clear mandate to leaders who celebrate man’s exceptionalism, understanding that the incidental problems created as we harness technology to bend nature to our will can be solved using more technology.”   In contrast, many of today’s environmentalists hold to the view, summarized by one-time White House Press Secretary and journalist Bill Moyers that  “We need a powerful new story that we are a part of nature and not separate from it.”

 

Whether you consider man a part of nature or separate from it, whether we’re inadvertently making skunks homeless or advertently rebalancing a wilderness predator/prey ratio;  it’s pretty clear that we are an integral part of earth’s ecosystem. It is also clear that as our numbers increase geometrically, our impact on that ecosystem becomes disproportionately large.  Is this dominion, or, like a wolfless population on Isle Royale are we now in danger of despoiling our habitat, threatening our quality of life and even risking our own demise?

 

Fortunately, like sea lions and elephants, we are relatively intelligent. And, like those crows and parrots Jennifer Ackerman writes about in The Genius of Birds, , we are problem solvers.  So what’s to be done? Perhaps a place to start is revisiting the National Environmental Protection Act of 1970.  That Federal Statute requires that certain federal and non-federal projects require an analysis of their environmental impact. That may be a start, but the act has no approval or disapproval capacity nor does it establish a body to make such determinations.   It merely says the information needs to be collected and considered. And there seems to be a great deal of controversy about where the line is drawn defining which actions require an EIS and which do not.  While it would be quite a radical departure from the status quo and something not at all likely to happen in our current political climate, perhaps it is worth considering an agency more like the Food and Drug Administration which would either approve or disapprove projects of  large enough scope based on the project’s environmental pros and cons.

 

There would be lots of details to work out.  How would projects requiring approval be defined?  How would enforcement occur? Would there be an iterative process to identify the types of projects which should have fallen under the jurisdiction of the agency but did not, but turned out later to have important unexpected environmental impacts (like horseshoe crab phlebotomies).  Imperfect lines would surely have to be drawn., No matter what, I’m afraid,  such an agency could never go fishing with a project net fine enough to prevent a project that would result in a homeless skunk .

Words, Coming and Going

   

 

As a grandfather, I now regret my misguided childhood indifference to the snippets of my own grandparents’ talk about being taught Polish grammar in their basement.  They had been born in Poland in the late 1800’s – a time when their homeland had been “disappeared” under the welter of partitions of the previous century.  Their basement home schooling was a response to the criminalization of the use or instruction of their native tongue – one of many efforts by Tsar Alexander II to Russify the Polish Slavs. If only they were alive today, how I would be pressing them for details!

 

Of course using the eradication of a language as a weapon to murder a culture isn’t something restricted to countries other than our own.  In a recent edition of Orion magazine –  that wonderful ad-free chronicler of the natural world – Robin Wall Kimmerer writes of her Potawatomi grandfather being sent to the Carlisle Indian School of US Cavalry officer Captain Richard Henry Pratt at around the same time the Tsar was busy throttling Polish.   There, children were forbidden from using the Potowotami language as part of the school’s avowed purpose, in the founder’s own words, as a means to “kill the indian and save the man.”    To Pratt’s credit, he was among a minority of conquering Americans who did not consider native Americans to be ‘subhumans’ and is credited with being one of the first people to use the term ‘racism’ in a pejorative sense to criticize policies of racial segregation .  But his willingness to blame the native American way of life while apparently believing in the individual native American’s biological equality bespeaks the complexity of issues of nature vs. nurture.

 

Kimmerer goes on to explore ways English and Potowotami portray different views of the relationship between man and the rest of the world – perhaps best exemplified by the familiar pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’.  In English the two former are reserved almost exclusively for fellow human beings and the last for nearly everything else.  The Potawatomi tongue, however, avoids pronouns and relies more on verbs and word placement in their stead.  Verbs come in two forms, one which relates to inanimate objects (‘it’ in English) but the other for animate ones.  As a result, humans stand on equal footing with flora and fauna and even, possibly, some important rocks.  As Kimmerer so eloquently puts it:

 

“You hear a blue jay with a different verb than you hear an airplane, distinguishing that which possesses the quality of life from that which is a mere object (italics are mine).  Birds, bugs and berries are spoken of with the same respectful grammar as humans are, as if we were all members of the same family. Because we are.  There is no it for nature…………..personhood is extended to all who breathe and some who don’t. I greet the silent boulder people with the same respect as I do the talkative chickadee.”

 

Kimmerer takes her thoughts two steps further.  In  one she explores ways in which blurring the bright English linguistic line between humans and the rest might ameliorate the harm done by the extractive, capitalization-heavy foundation of much of modern Western civilization.  In the other  she considers replacing  ‘he’ and ‘she’ as well as ‘it’ with the word ‘ki’.  Then she reflects on how this might even help us be more humble and worshipful when we exploit a natural resource or take a non-human life.  (It might also, it seems to me, serve to defuse some of our counterproductive gender conflicts.)

 

Authoritarian linguicide, however, is not the only way cultures and worldviews can be eradicated.  Robert Macfarlane in his wordly-wise book, Landmarks, explores historical word disappearance and reflects on how this may mirror or influence our thinking.  In the process he reports that the Oxford Junior Dictionary’s newest edition has made some telling, and to my mind sinister, substitutions:

 

“Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow. The words introduced to the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail.”

 

The logic behind the editors’ choices is clear and largely driven by modern usage, but the implications give one pause, or at least should.   Aside from frequency of use those new introductions are all products of the human brain with all its limitations and distortions. Somebody or somebodies had an idea and that drove each word’s creation.  But the deleted words had a different origin.  Somebody standing under an oak got bopped on the head by something, or was gathering nutlike things to grind into flour, or saw a squirrel running off with something in ki’s (sic) mouth and needed a word to describe the object.  The real meaning, the full meaning, the comprehensive meaning of the thing the word ‘acorn’ stands for is enormously – perhaps infinitely – complex and ranges from the genetic code it contains, the symmetry and biochemistry of the acorn itself, the magnificent oak tree it has the potential to produce etc., etc.  And those new introductions?  I’ll admit some of them are kind of complicated.  I can’t begin to explain how broadband works.  But there are lots of people who can and some body or some team of somebodies thought it up and got it to work. Every one of those new introductions signify the physical manifestations of someone’s idea and therefore are entirely limited by the creative imagination of a mere person.  The word ‘acorn’ and all those other deletions signify the creative imagination of something very else.  

 

Weaponizing the eradication of a language to murder a culture may be more sinister than the Oxford editors’ actions.  But the consequences – unintended or not – are similar.  The Oxford Junior Dictionary’s linguistic move forebodes an eradication of awareness of the natural world through death by a thousand cuts.  As an act of resistance, when my grandchildren come to visit I plan to take them down to the basement and talk to them about acorns, newts and otters.

The Frame’s the Thing: More Worship, Less Worry

iStock_000017039684Large I confess. I’m a list keeper and on of one of my lists is “Subjects to be blogged about.”  For some time now the phrase “Sacredness of Nature” has been on that list. As an enthusiastic environmentalist I often wonder what it is about the natural world that stirs me to write about it, volunteer to protect it and donate to organizations that promote it.  Articulating the reasons for this expenditure of time and treasure might help motivate others to do the same. Then along comes an article in the online NYTimes that tells me how to do it more effectively.

The author, ­ a professor of sociology, psychology and organizational behavior at Stanford University ­ notes that while environmentalism is not inherently political (after all, Republican Teddy Roosevelt greatly expanded the National Park Service and Republican Richard Nixon founded the Environmental Protection Agency) it has become a movement associated primarily with liberalism and the Democratic Party. This in spite of the fact that when polled individually, about half self­-identified Republicans favor government action to address global warming.

To shed more light on this apparent paradox, author Robb Willer and a colleague offered one group of self-­identified conservatives a message about maintaining the purity and sanctity of nature and preventing its desecration. A second group received a message about protecting the environment from harm and a third group’s message did not mention the environment at all.  Consistent with previous work showing that conservative values tilted towards patriotism, respect for authority, purity and sanctity, the conservatives receiving the moral purity message subsequently said they were significantly more likely to favor environmental legislation and even professed a stronger belief in the reality of global warming (which hadn’t even been mentioned in the messages).

So it looks as if framing conversations about environmental causes in terms of what is pure and sacred is mighty important. To get conservatives on board we need less tree hugging and more wonder at the soaring ​sanctity ​of old growth forests; less emphasis on ​saving​ fuzzy critters ​with big eyes or ​protecting ​tracts of habitat and more emphasis on s​topping the desecration​ of God’s creation.  After all if God – the ultimate authority after all – ­ went to the trouble of getting Noah to build that ark to His exact specifications and then commanded him to herd  onto it “every thing of all flesh, two of every sort…of fowls after their kind and cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind“, then we descendants of Noah should probably think twice about bulldozing the sacred places that sustain those creatures.

A previous study by the same authors gives these findings additional relevance . They analyzed 51 environmentally­-oriented public service announcements and 402 opinion pieces in major American newspapers and discovered that the majority focused on ​protecting ​people and ecosystems rather than on the importance of maintaining the purity and sacredness ​of the natural world.  There’s a takeaway here, albeit a subtle one.

It’s time to talk less about ​saving ​endangered species and more about ​worshipping ​the richness of creation. There needs to be less handwringing about ​protecting ​a wetland from the threat of drainage and more open s​hame ​on those who fail to appreciate the ​wondrous complexity​ of an ecosystem by paving it over. We need less emphasis on ​saving​ wilderness from encroachment and more on the purity​ of untrammeled wilderness and it’s ability to restore the human spirit.​  In short, the image of the natural world as s​acred and purifying needs to be emphasized above it’s being too weak to survive on its own.​

Of course the thoughtful reader may suspect a ruse. Aren’t we trying to get more converts to environmentalism precisely because the environment is under serious attack? Well, it is, but it doesn’t have to be. If nature and the integrity of the environment remain unaligned with the conservative value system the battle is going to continue. But if the environment can cease being a political issue and instead becomes a shared value for the entire political spectrum like motherhood and apple pie, sustaining our rich and sacred natural world will cease being the Sisyphean struggle it has lately become.  Once the values get realigned, the environment won’t be under constant threat. It won’t be in danger any longer. It won’t need to be protected and can be worshipped as it deserves to be.  And I can take “Sacredness of Nature” off my list of things to be blogged about.

The Loraxes vs. The Once-lers; A Game that Never Ends (Played on a Tilted Field with Two Different Time clocks)

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It’s now coming up on almost 45 years since Dr. Seuss published The Lorax in 1971.  But in spite of his hero’s eloquent pleas, the world lost over 3% of its forest in the two decades between 1990 and 2010. ( Earth Policy Institute’s compilation of data from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s Forest Resources Assessment. ) Dr. Seuss and his Lorax had it right.  Somebody has to speak for the trees.

 

Perhap it’s the result of media’s need to emphasize conflict, but whenever I come across the word “environmentalists” while scanning a newspaper or hear “environmentalists” out of the corner of my ear while half listening to the radio, I wince. “Environmentalists resist lumbering in the Pacific Northwest”, “Environmentalists line up against XL Pipeline”, “Enviromentalists lobby for reduced fishing quotas.”  “Environmentalists up in arms about drilling for oil in Alaska’s Wildlife Refuge.”  Seems like the environmental motto must be  “Just say ‘No’ “.  And more often than not the environmentalists are lined up against something that has a fair amount of popular support.

 

And in truth, much environmental activism does involve preventing the doing of something – and often that something has immediate benefits for many, like keeping their houses warm or putting food on the table or providing a nice shopping mall closer to home. And how does one balance inconveniencing a herd of migrating caribou most people will never see against knocking a few cents off the price of a gallon of gasoline for everybody?

 

But here’s the rub.  Those folks with a direct dog in the fight can speak out loudly and they have an immediate incentive to do so;  but as for the environment – well that’s a different matter.  For the most part, the environment doesn’t squawk when it is trampled on – not right away. And nobody has big bucks to make by objecting to an environmentally damaging project. In the long run, however, there is a big price to pay.  But to make matters even more complicated, that price is often in something other than dollars.  Coastlines  slowlyerode and property gradually disappears when all the mangroves get chopped down to make way for coastal resorts. Silt clogs streams when hillsides are clearcut and salmon runs silently disappear.  Or one day someone decides to take their kids camping and realizes there is no open land within a two hour’s drive.

 

Another problem is that the costs and benefits of environment vs development are spread across different timescales. Levelling that West Virginia mountaintop and extracting its coal may reduce electricity costs for some for the next couple of years.   The fouled streams  and ruined landscape, however, will be present for generations. Granted, the contributions to mercury accumulation in seafood and CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere from one coal mine may be small, but it is Death by A Thousand Cuts.    And the only way we have of controlling that dismal fate is putting a brake on the small contributors one at a time.

 

I would like to argue that many of the things environmentalists are working to protect can compete well in a fair fight against the typically vested interests of those clamoring for their exploitation.  The field on which the environmentalists and the exploiters compete, however is not level.  To get away from preconceptions, let’s call them the Loraxes and the Once-lers.

 

When the Once-lers score a goal, their score stays up.  A pipeline gets built and it is there for good.  There is big money to be made cutting down some old growth forest; once it is cut and sold, the money is in the bank.  Same deal if the Atlantic cod is overfished until the breeding population collapses.  And get the OK to drill in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and the oil wells are there to stay.

 

Its a different matter for the Loraxes.  Hold up the pipeline now and the battle begins with the next congress.  Block the clearcut this year and  the lumber companies are back at it again next.  And let a species like the spotted owl or the black rhino go extinct and you have lost that game once and for all.  Every time the Once-lers score a point their score gets higher.  For the Loraxes, the point is only secure until the next time the Once-lers make an offensive play.

 

And that’s not the only problem.  Turns out the two sides are playing with different game clocks. When that lumber company fells and sells a couple of acres of old growth trees its quarterly profits go up and the CEO gets his raise that year.  For the Loraxes, successfully holding off that lumbering means that the trees will be there to be enjoyed for the next generation, and the offspring of the salmon that lay their eggs in the unsilted streams of that old uncut forest won’t be back for an average of five years.  Same time warp for developing tropical mangrove shorelines.  Those resort profits start rolling in as soon as construction  is finished, but the loss of a marine nursery won’t be noticed for years, and the impact of the next fifty year hurricane on that fragile environment won’t be felt for, well, fifty years on average.

 

And there’s one more thing.  The players are paid in different currencies.  The stars kicking goals for the Once-lers get paid in dollars and lots of them.  Those dollars let them buy their own piece of undeveloped waterfront or a mountain lodge on several hundred acres.  Those dollars, strategically placed, may even get them on the boards of some high profile conservation organizations and let them steer environmental policy.   The stars playing for the Loraxes get, for the most part, satisfaction for a job well done, handshakes, volunteer of the year awards, the hope that their grandchildren will still have some unspoiled wilderness to hike in – stuff like that.  Makes one think of the Lord Charles Bowen’s musing:

 

“The rain is raining on the just

And also on the unjust fella

But mostly on the just because

The unjust hath the just’s umbrella.”

 

But back to the idea of those “environmentalists” being a fringe group trying to hold up progress.  I’d argue that at heart, many people who don’t identify themselves as “environmentalist” value the natural world very much.  By that I mean they value many of the same things that self declared environmentalists do. What, then, does set them apart?

 

Well, some are fortunate enough to be able to buy for themselves the things the self-declared environmentalists are trying to keep available for a broader public.  You needn’t worry about the local salmon population if you can afford to go to Scotland and rent fishing rights on one of the exclusive private stretches of river there.  You don’t have to concern yourself with available open space if you can afford a thousand acres of a mountainside in New Mexico.  These folks share many of the active environmentalists’ aesthetic values but for whatever reason, don’t feel compelled to make satisfaction of them more widely available.

 

Then there are others who are just dealing with a different set of observations.  The fisheries scientists take carefully standardized samples from rigorously randomized locations and conclude an area is being overfished.  Fishermen, on the other hand, may see their catches actually increasing, but fail to take into account that they are constantly searching for the areas of densest population and forget the fact that the new fish-finding technology they bought two years earlier is much more sensitive than the stuff they were using earlier.

 

And something that is difficult to acknowledge and easy to forget, for those of us fortunate enough to live a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, is the harsh reality facing the large and growing number of people who are in the terrible position of having to scrape by.  If you are an inner city child who never has been camping it’s not your fault that you don’t value nature.   If you don’t bring home a paycheck large enough to put food on the table for your family it is difficult to get up in arms about restricting pesticides which might, after all, make your food somewhat more expensive.  If you and your spouse are trying to meet your utility bills on a threatened social security check and there is a chance that the strip mining in West Virginia will reduce those costs, it seems like a no brainer.  Of course,  there’s no guarantee that that mining is going to do anything more than increase the coal company profits.  So reducing poverty, communicating the aesthetic and spiritual values of exposure to nature, working to assure that policy decisions are based on the best data available and reducing wealth inequality all represent paths towards the goal of environmental stabilization.

 

All this gets me to wondering, is there a way out of this mess?  Is there ever going to come a time when environmentalists can stop their seemingly endless struggle – pushing that boulder up the mountain only to have it roll back down as they near the top?  Can one hope that someday, us tree-huggers are going to be seen as the good guys?

When I was about ten a wise family friend was teaching me to fish.  “There’s only one sure thing about fishing.” he said.  “If you don’t put your line in the water you’ll never catch any fish.”  Pretty much the same things holds for protecting the environment.  It may never be returned to the pristine state some would prefer, but if we never try to achieve some sort of equilibrium with its exploitation it’s pretty clear what’s going to happen to the planet.  Rachel Carson did her part.  Aldo Leopold did his.    So did Dr. Seuss.  Now it’s up to us.

On Not Heating With Wood

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Heading home after an early morning meeting on  a recent wet, raw October day I found myself looking forward to building a fire in the wood stove. Then I recalled that we were planning to avoid wood fires for a while to see if it made any difference in the symptoms of a family allergy.  So I’d just have to rely on the oil burner.  But  I was surprised by how disappointed I felt.  What was the trouble?

 

It wasn’t entirely the cost.  It wasn’t one of those ten below zero days when the furnace would grind away ninety percent of the time to keep the house tolerable.  It would only take a few minutes to warm up the place, and because of all the weatherization we’ve done over the years it would remain warm for quite a while before the thermostat called for more heat.  And anyway the price of fuel oil is way down because of all the shenanigans of the marketplace.  I do admit to being pretty thrifty but it wasn’t all the cost.

 

And it wasn’t guilt, even though  I’m plenty concerned about climate disruption and the environmental degradation from burning fossil fuels.  After all, I drive a Prius, I look for Energy Star appliances whenever one needs replacing, and, thanks to my wife’s urging, we have lots of solar panels.  I also try to do my part to persuade our elected officials to ignore all those bogus arguments and huge campaign contributions from the oil, gas and coal folks.  So a couple of pints of heating oil on a raw fall day won’t tarnish my crown in heaven too much.

 

It took me a while to figure out what was going on, but I think I finally did.  I was disappointed because I like the process of firing up the woodstove and feeling the results of what I’ve done.  I like crumpling up the newspaper – not so tightly that it resembles a log, but loosely enough that the ratio of air to compressed wood fibers permits rapid combustion.  I like laying on just enough kindling – not enough to smother the burning paper but enough to sustain the fire as I lay on larger wood. I feel competent when I do those things and as I do, I am reminded that the wood came from a local tree which has a set of its own amazingly efficient small green solar panels that capture the sun’s radiant energy and store it as chemical energy in the covalent bonds of cellulose being laid down silently all summer right beneath the tree’s knobbly bark – no associated air pollution, no multimillion dollar XL Pipeline, no terrorist threats.   Thinking about all that as I make the fire is better than watching some morning TV talk show.  But missing that process, it turns out, is only part of my disappointment.

 

Another part, I think, has to do with having a broader understanding of my world and where I fit in.  When I build that wood fire – and this is especially true if I’ve cut down the tree and worked up the wood myself – I understand some of the implications.  I know, sort of, how long it took that tree to grow.  I think about how big my woodlot is and whether the steady growth of the hardwoods is greater or less than the rate at which I am taking trees down. In short I have a pretty good idea of whether my woodburning is sustainable.   I also know that by harvesting a tree when I do, instead of letting it die in place, that tree will no longer provide a home first for woodpeckers and then, perhaps a kestrel;  that I’ve messed with the ecology of my woodlot; that it’s not quite as rich a habitat as it would have been were the tree  left standing.    I understand those tradeoffs in a much more immediate way than the tradeoffs involved in opening the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.  And I also have a pretty good idea about the real costs of staying warm through a whole New Hampshire winter – how many person hours it takes to get that wood down, cut up, split, processed and moved into the cellar before the snow flies.

 

But I’ve saved the best ‘til last.   I realized that the biggest reason I was disappointed by not building a fire in the woodstove when I got home is that I am a control freak. I like to be in charge. I like knowing how to do stuff and calling the shots on how it is done.

 

So, aren’t I in charge when I turn up the thermostat?  Well, no, not really.   I  don’t have much of an idea about how to find oil – though I do know that it sometimes involves setting off underwater explosions which risk blowing out the eardrums of some of earth’s biggest and most mysterious creatures .  I don’t have a clue about how to drill for oil – though I am aware that doing so creates some pretty ugly international relations and often involves opening up pristine wilderness.  I don’t have any idea where to buy a drilling rig or how to set it up or where to hire the crews to man it or who to schmooze with to get the best price when and if the stuff finally comes up out of where it’s been for the last hundred million years.  I don’t have any idea about how to hire a tanker, or determine whether or not the tanker skipper is likely to be drunk when he approaches some reef.  I just know that when I call up my oil company they deliver some oil so my burner comes on when I turn up the thermostat.  All the rest of the stuff is under somebody else’s control and I just don’t like it.

 

So as soon as we figure out that those allergy symptoms aren’t related to the wisps of smoke that occasionally escape while I’m stoking the stove, I’m going back to heating with wood.