Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

Nuts and Pomegranates

February 14, 2018

This is a remarkable article about big ag in central California. I’ll warn you, it’s long. But you won’t soon forget it.

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The Beginning of Globalization

November 27, 2017

Of all the books I’ve read in the last year, I’ve most frequently found myself referring to 1493. I read it by accident–my library had it available for e-book loan when I was headed out on a long trip–and it’s become a marker in my mental map of the world.

1493 is a clever title for a book that might be called The World After Columbus. The author, Charles C. Mann, went up against the fact that Columbus is very out of fashion, seen as an exploiter and a bumbler who pioneered the rape of indigenous Americans. Mann’s point isn’t that Columbus was or wasn’t a great man, it’s that his discovery changed the world as dramatically as any single event in its recorded history. “Columbus’s voyage did not mark the discovery of a new world, but its creation.” (xxiv)

Mann is a very well informed journalist who covers a huge front of information, dallying in interesting stories. Any reader is bound to come away with at least a dozen cocktail-party conversation pieces. Mann does like to entertain, but he’s aiming to expose something bigger: the indisputable fact that a new world began. Trade, both intentional and inadvertent (nobody intended to pass African grasses to the New World), created the world that is recognizably our own, founded on trade and international exploitation, ecological transformation and crisis, the global spread of disease, foods that know no national boundary, and international economics.

I knew about some of the exchange between Europe and the Americas–for example, how American potatoes and corn transformed European diets, and how Bolivian silver enriched Spain while also hollowing out its productive economy. (You could make more investing in ships going to Mexico than in building factories or roads in Spain.) I didn’t know anything about Spain’s beginning trade with China (80 years after Columbus’s discovery), and how that led to a complete transformation of China’s agriculture, a doubling of its population, and ultimately the political crises that destroyed so much of its economy. I also didn’t know that China–which had long looked down on Europe because it offered no product that China really wanted–moved into international trade because of Bolivian silver, which came to comprise China’s entire money supply.

Mann tells a lot about the spread of disease. I knew about cholera and smallpox, which played a large role in decimating populations and enabling their conquest. I didn’t know much about malaria, which is more insidious. Mann has a long discourse on the varieties of malaria and their effects on England and the Americas, including most of what would become the United States. He suggests that malaria played a potent role in the southern colonies’ adopting slavery.

What about horses and cows, which came to America with the conquistadors and quickly transformed the way of life of many native American tribes? What about tobacco? What about rubber? These were plants of little or no importance in their place of origin that became the source of great fortunes–and great ecological transformations–in other places around the globe. What about the rise of slavery, which went from a local practice to a global business that was essential to other global businesses–for example, the production of sugar, which was the source of enormous riches.

Mann effectively portrays the world we know, where everything affects everything whether we like it or not, and transformations occur for good or evil (more likely, both) invisibly and visibly, and on a human level, great riches, great suffering, ecological convulsions and political mayhem are the inevitable result. These forces were at play long before Columbus–think of the Roman Empire, think of the Silk Road–but they exploded globally after Columbus. The world Columbus inadvertently created is our world.

1493 is relevant not by telling us whether to support or oppose globalization but by making it clear how utterly ubiquitous globalization is. It is, literally, in the air we breathe. We can’t stop it, we can only seek to shape it. And because there are so many complicated, interlocking and invisible forces at play, our attempts to shape it will have many unintended consequences.

Adam Smith is best known for his idea of an “invisible hand” shaping the selfish forces of a free-market economy into a benevolent result. A globalized world of the kind the Mann describes is a free-market economy of much wider extent and scale. It does much greater good and evil, and no “invisible hand” appears anywhere. Our human reaction is to try to regulate and legislate, but it is hard to be optimistic that these forces can be regulated effectively–or perhaps at all. Do you have faith in a loving God? The alternative, in the world Columbus created, is to anticipate disaster.

Are We Doomed?

June 24, 2015

My two favorite columnists, David Brooks and Ross Douthat, have now weighed in on Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, here and here. While both give Francis high marks for bravely tackling the subject, and both appreciate his wonderful personal qualities, neither one of them sees the encyclical very favorably.

Brooks approaches it more practically, noting that “Francis doesn’t seem to have practical strategies for a fallen world.” He’s consistently against any market-driven innovation and any technological advance. There’s no acknowledgement that market-driven economic growth (as in China and India) and technological advance (as in crops that grow more food) have led to a huge diminishing in world poverty and hunger in the developing world, and to environmental improvements in the developed world. Brooks concludes: “The innocence of the dove has to be accompanied by the wisdom of the serpent — the awareness that programs based on the purity of the heart backfire; the irony that the best social programs harvest the low but steady motivations of people as they actually are.”

I agree with that, but I thought Douthat’s comments were more penetrating. Douthat divides social commentators between “dynamists and catastrophists.” Dynamists recognize severe problems but have moderate hope that human society is capable of innovative solutions. They “see 21st-century modernity as a basically successful society.” Catastrophists are sure the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and nothing can stop it. They are “united in believing that current arrangements are foredoomed, and that only a true revolution can save us.”

These two are more rhetorical style and temperament than developed philosophy. You can find both liberals and conservatives on both sides. Living in Sonoma County, I often encounter liberals who see utter ruin just ahead: to the environment, to the economy, to education, to democracy. And being an evangelical Christian, I often encounter conservatives who also see utter ruin just ahead: to the family, to traditional values like love of country, to freedom of religion (or any other kind of freedom.)

Dynamists of the left believe in the power of governmental and technocratic solutions, while dynamists of the right believe in the power of market arrangements.

According to Douthat, Francis is a catastrophist. He sees nothing but ruin ahead for God’s creation, given our current political and economic relations.

As I say, I catastrophism is a rhetorical style, beloved of the prophets. Such doomsday verbiage captures the attention and the imagination. It may help motivate people to take global warming seriously, before it is too late. That, I feel sure, is Francis’ intent, and I suspect he is willing to pass by nuanced discussion of economics in favor of getting his message across. He is a preacher by nature and calling, it seems.

As Douthat suggests, however, there are other possible outcomes that could make Francis ultimately look as foolish as Paul Ehrlich and his population bomb. “It’s possible to believe that climate change is happening while doubting that it makes ‘the present world system … certainly unsustainable,’ as the pope suggests. Perhaps we’ll face a series of chronic but manageable problems instead; perhaps ‘radical change’ can, in fact, be persistently postponed.” Or perhaps we will settle into stagnation, unable to deal with our threats, but also unable to triumph over them.

“In that case,” writes Douthat, “the deep critique our civilization deserves will have to be advanced without the threat of imminent destruction. The arguments in ‘Laudato Si’ ‘ will still resonate, but they will have to be structured around a different peril: Not a fear that the particular evils of our age can’t last, but the fear that actually, they can.”

As I read the Bible, stagnation is not the main threat to worry about. Neither is ecological destruction, significant as it certainly is. I find the Bible offering no hint whether environmental degradation will destroy us in the end or not. I do find a clear warning that our sin—our selfishness, self-worship, arrogance, lack of concern for our neighbor, refusal to care for the poor and to steward God’s beautiful world—will lead us to be judged and found wanting by our creator. That catastrophism requires a different kind of analysis—not one based on our environmental survival, but on our standing before a God of love and power.

On the Pacific Coast Trail

June 23, 2015

I just got back from backpacking in the eastern Sierra. At least a dozen years had passed since I was last in the back-country for a solid week, and it reminded me that there’s a big difference between being out of civilization for seven days instead of three. We spent the whole week over 10,000 feet, climbing over four near-12,000-foot passes. I discovered that I can’t go as far or as fast as I once could. Six miles with a pack and I was thrashed. But that’s okay. You can take the Sierra slow.

That is decidedly not the theory animating those hiking the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). I was frankly shocked at how many of them we saw. They were easy to spot by the men’s (and they were mostly men) scraggly beards. They were young, tall and lean. They had very similar equipment. (I assume they all read the same guidebook.) And they were burning up the trail, traveling unbelievable distances each day. Of course, they had already hiked nearly 800 miles, so they were in pretty good shape!

One Kings Canyon National Park ranger said he heard that 4,500 PCTers had registered. Granted that many drop out, that’s still a lot of bodies traveling on one narrow wilderness trail. They start in roughly a one-month window, in order to make it from Mexico to Canada before the snow. You do the math. If half drop out, that’s 75 a day.

Another ranger told us that the numbers have been ratcheting up year by year for a long time. Apparently the movie and book Wild has stimulated a big increase. I suspect the numbers will ratchet back down. Who can spend upwards of six months hiking? Who wants to? (It’s not all scenic wonderland.) The ranger, however, was doubtful. He sees no end.

When I was a boy, backpacking was a niche phenomenon. After a two-week hike we would find people at the trailhead who had no idea that anybody did such a thing. They acted as though they had discovered Neanderthals still living in the remote reaches of the woods.

Then, during my college years, “nature” met its cultural moment. The trails grew so popular that the National Parks and the Forest Service had to implement daily trail quotas. But hikers went in mostly for short trips—weekends or weeks. They hiked to experience wilderness and see the mountains. Most of that died out, when we had children.

Today, the focus is on feats of endurance. It’s very impressive, completing the PCT. And anybody who has fought long and hard to accomplish a goal knows there are great personal benefits. But still it leaves me with questions. Is this what the mountains are for? A proving ground for our toughness?

I suppose it goes with the growth in extreme sports. Our time seems driven to test our limits—on an individual and personal basis, not as a society. (We seem allergic to sacrifice and goal-setting as a nation. We can’t even agree on how to fix our bridges and pave our roads. Maybe we’re balancing that out with demanding physical feats.)

I thought about John Muir, who wandered these same mountains. When you read what he did you are struck by his heroic and stoic endurance. The dude was tough and fearless. In that sense, he would have identified with the PCTers. But he wasn’t tough to prove himself; he was tough because that was the easiest way for him to be in the mountains. It was the wilderness he sought, not an affirmation of himself.

The mountains will outlast this cultural moment. They will speak for themselves. I wonder whether some of the PCTers will come back for a second look, when they can slow down. I bet they will.

The Unexpected Results of Global Warming

April 3, 2015

Let’s not argue about whether 98% of climate scientists are correct in predicting global warming. Assume for the moment that they are right and that at least some of their catastrophic predictions will come true. What will be the result?

I don’t mean economically or ecologically. There will be hard facts—sea levels, temperatures, storms—that will play out, and we human beings will make our responses. We will build sea walls, move away from the coast, migrate from hot areas, change our crop rotation, and so on. We will do our best to cope with change, often in surprising and unpredictable ways. Who knows just how successful we will be?

As I imagine it, however, one change will be almost certain. There will necessarily be a change toward revering science. If and when those predictions come true, scientists will gain a lot of credit. They predicted it, and we ignored it.

These days, appreciation of science is mixed up with a great deal of skepticism and even hostility, from people on all sides of the political spectrum. Lefties tend to despise GMO foods, anything with man-made chemicals, and sometimes vaccines. Righties fight to deny evolution and global warming. All sides include people who believe instinctively that alternative medicine (diets, supplements, naturopathic medicines) is better and safer than what scientific medicine recommends.

Most of these are small-scale issues, and the consequences of getting them right or wrong is hard to measure. With global warming, though, something really huge is at stake. We are making a global gamble that science is wrong. We’re letting skepticism about science have the decisive word. It will take some time to see how that gamble works out, but my guess is that our grandchildren will ask us, “How could you sit by and make no serious attempt to arrest climate change? Didn’t you listen to what the scientists said?”

Our grandchildren will grow up believing in science much more than we do. They will be a lot less tolerant of the science skepticism that animates so many people today.

There’s always this reversal after a national failure. The failure to address the Depression led to the New Deal and the government-enmeshed economy. The failure to face Hitler early led to the lasting popularity of the military-industrial complex after WWII. And the failure to address climate change will lead, I expect, to an era where science rules.

Whether that is a good thing is another matter.

The Forgotten Child

July 16, 2014

Last week, when we were visiting the Eastern Sierra, we spent the night at Sawmill Campground not far from Tioga Pass. It’s a walk-in campground in a lovely little valley where I camped with my family as a child.

When I visit Fresno, the town where I grew up, a lot has changed. In fact, some years ago I tried to show my children the high school I attended, and I couldn’t find it. Some of that has to do with my memory, of course, but it’s also that the familiar markers have disappeared.

But at Sawmill, hardly anything has changed. The campground is better developed (picnic tables no less) and the road access is gone. (I remember the car bottoming out as we scraped and jolted our way to a spot flat enough to thrown down our massive canvas tent.) But the valley is identical. The view of Mt. Dana that I cherished as a child has not changed an iota. I’m not sure they have even changed the mosquitoes.

I found, wandering and rediscovering the trails I followed as a child, an almost magical reawakening of memory. I was again that child, enchanted by the snow-patched ridges. Such is the joy of landscapes that do not change, but welcome like an old friend. The mountains bypass time–or seem to, for us changeful creatures. And so, for a brief sojourn, I catch a glimpse of my soul, which does not age like the rest of me but remains, at some depth, at least half a child.

Carnivores of the Garden

October 17, 2012

These days I can’t walk through my garden without hanging up on spider’s webs. Annoying? Well, yes, but I take pleasure in the creatures. We installed new railings in front of our house this summer, and already the garden spiders have colonized them, building magnificent two-dimensional castles.

I like to think of my garden as a jungle harboring carnivores. That’s what spiders are: top-of-the-chain meat-eaters, miniature wolves.

Speaking of wolves, I am glad they have come back in certain parts of North America. My sympathies to ranchers, but even they, I suspect, take some pleasure in a world that still harbors wild and dangerous creatures. I like it when an occasional mountain lion or bear wanders into our neighborhood.

Those are outliers, however–not really residents in my suburbia. Spiders, however–they prowl and prey as savagely as ever just outside my door. They are not welcome in my house, any more than a wolf would be. But they are welcome in my garden, though I doubt the feeling is mutual.

How Much Water Is There?

May 10, 2012

Check out this illustration. It’s amazing how little water there is. We live on a very thin layer of habitable earth, on a very small planet in the midst of inconceivable vastness.

(I owe my geologist son Silas for the link.)

Bad Dream

May 26, 2011

Friday and Saturday Popie and I took a lightning trip to Yosemite, one of our very most favorite places in the world. On the way home we stopped at Hetch Hetchy. I’ve been visiting Yosemite for 50 years, but I’d never been to call on her twin sister.

Hetch Hetchy is a valley parallel to Yosemite, roughly 30 miles north. It was the focus of one of the earliest and most epic battles over conservation. The city of San Francisco needed water (especially after the 1906 earthquake) and they developed an elaborate engineering scheme to get it by damming Hetch Hetchy. John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, fought that dam tooth and nail. He lost. The dam was built and the beautiful valley filled with water.

As you approach Hetch Hetchy from a distance, it looks eerily like Yosemite, with high granite cliffs and waterfalls pouring down into a narrow valley. I kept thinking it was Yosemite, so similar did it appear, only Yosemite as you might see it in a bad dream. What used to be a meadowy floor is now a sterile lake. It has no shore, just cliffs rising from the dark water. The whole place seemed somber, with Yosemite’s gray grandeur but without Yosemite’s hospitable green park.

I usually take lightly warnings of environmental doom. Human interventions in nature are not always bad, nor always irrevocable. The earth is a resilient place, and as our home it has been and can be profitably rearranged for our comfort. In this case, though, I’m afraid we did something very bad, and lovely Hetch Hetchy is gone forever. Years ago I read proposals to blow up the dam and restore the valley, but that would be a mammoth, utopian project, and I can’t imagine it happening. We lost what must have been one of the supremely beautiful spots on earth.