Saturday, November 16, 2013



The Anthropocene is not the kind of world we want to live in. Is this not at the core of much Green rhetoric and supposed values? We want our bodies, already contaminated by over 80 chemicals, to be pure, and thus to eat organically raised foods. We want to preserve Nature, its viewsheds as well as watersheds. We want the predictability of slow evolution, though we are in the midst of accelerating cultural evolution that causes us great anxiety. We want a world that preserves enough habitat to be recognizable as the one our grandparents were born into. And we definitely don't want to be a “planetary power” (Brian Swimme), a geological force so powerful that the world's geologists are about to affix our name to the era.

Dear reader, do you not see that we Greens are also falling into the trap of hubris? In our case, are we not prescribing nineteenth century (or Medieval, or paleolithic – though this is more true of Earth Firsters than the curious case of the paleo-dieter,) values for the vastly more complex and challenging Anthropocene? Would not the greatest hubris be condemning much of the present world population to starvation, because we prefer a world with less humans? This could be the case if we prescribed organic farming for all the world's farmers, if that would indeed require twice the land to make up for producing half the yield of industrial farming. To be honest, I have found myself rather moralistically accepting the necessity of a huge die-off, primarily from starvation, because I prefer a world with fewer humans, feeling the world is too much with us. But until I read Lynas' book I did not place myself in a Third World father's sandals, watching my kids die, one by one. What about you?

“Can we not have peaceful coexistence?” Lynas asks in terms of the conflicting values of small organic farmers and industrial farming. There is plenty of room for the wonderful growth of organic produce in this country and others. But if we applied our strictest organic values to the world's cereal crops, we would not only condemn the world's poor to starvation, but threaten to make the current extinction wave, via habitat encroachment, much worse. On the other hand, GM seeds have already escaped into non GM fields (and Monsanto has sued the hapless farmers who did not plant them), and current proposed federal regulations would set up the same scenario for salmon. Peaceful coexistence, mediated by markets, might well be impossible without much more careful regulation of industrial farming, with human error reduced virtually to zero.

Of course, it is highly likely that, as we work to correct the excesses of technological overreach, we will end up creating a situation of such complexity that it must crash. But reading Lynas has caused me to at least ponder the wager that we can buy more time, as Borlaug put it. We are not going to change our species' imperative, deeply bred into us, to keep trying to maximize our own growth, by resorting to moralism. And, short of collapse, there will be no revolution of the kind that Naomi Klein suggests could come with the union of socialist and Green causes. Might it just be possible that careful crafting of the present industrial agriculture and global capital system could create conditions for a barely tolerable (to the Earth) sustainability?

Once, teaching a humanities class where we read Daniel Quinn's Ishmael, I was surprised when a young man, who had just discovered his Quaker roots and was attending our meeting in Fargo, stood up to the entire class to argue against Quinn and his telepathic ape. Tavis passionately spoke for our evolutionary imperative, alarmed that the rest of us would give up on our intelligent problem-solving prematurely. As a teacher who encouraged democratic discussion, I was pleased for another point of view to emerge, and respectful of his position as the discussion proceeded. Though I have continued to hold the other view, I must say that Tavis's defense of modernity stayed with me, now rekindled by reading Lynas. I agree with the population biologists and the ecologists that we are subject to the same laws as all other species, and with the consensus figure of 1.5 – 2 billion figure for maximum sustainable population – after all, it is in line with my own figure. But I am open to Lynas' (and Donella Meadows) argument that we could use our ingenuity, with safeguards in place for all the physico-chemical boundaries we face, to continue to make agronomic breakthroughs sufficient to feed 9-10 billion.

I am increasingly encountering Tavis' position from the more rational among my spiritually-oriented ecofriends. Slowly, they are coming out of the closet, academics and engineers and writers who still feel that, if we could just muster the political will, we could use the recommendations of policy analysts so create a soft-enough landing to muddle through. Of course, political will is at the crux of all approaches. Nobody in the environmental movement, whether they be back-to-the-land types or think-tank denizens who don't understand Greens' fear of technology, believes that unfettered capitalism and the resultant acceleration of the BAU curve (RCP8.5 – see note at bottom of current post) will bring us anything but catastrophic collapse. The point of the policy wonks is that we have a system that, with a few key adjustments (carbon tax, commiditization of all biosystem services), could bring us to the Promised Land of good enough. Doubters on the left will point out that this can't happen, won't happen without a more fundamental revolution, both in terms of the financial and world trade system and the related conditions of social (in)equality.

If we do crash, and it is the likeliest scenario, our remnant will continue to develop, working to do the best they can from the reduced level of complexity and comfort, at least as long as we haven't totally shot all the boundaries Lynas outlines. But the same problem that bedevils us now will continue to challenge us. Though we have been able to engineer materials, and now, for better or worse, the very germ material of life, we have yet been able to engineer human behavior, try as we might. We are still wired for tribal life with limbic patterns that trump reason almost every time they are in conflict. Individual human beings can achieve transformation, but this happening on a a societal scale appears to be a California pipe dream.

Yet once, in what Lynas calls “humanity's finest hour,” we were able to use international diplomacy to engineer the Montreal Protocol, which protected one of our boundaries (ozone), buying time until the next crisis. Now those crises are coming thick and fast. We are not genetically prepared for this, but instead of asking the world to stop and let us get off at the next organic farm, we might put faith in the U.N., and the continuing, patient work it will take to get us to the next international protocol, leap-frogging past the failures of Kyoto and Copenhagen. Expectations are low, but our hearts and wills need to be with the challenged delegates at Warsaw, praying that they will hear the passionate plea from the Philippine delegate Naderev Sano in the wake of the most powerful storm ever to make landfall (a second annual event for the beleaguered Philippinos), to “stop this [climate] madness.” Sano has initiated a hunger strike until the UN climate delegates achieve “meaningful progress” - and scores in Warsaw have joined him.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, November 14, 2013


Limits to Agriculture in the 21st Century

Two key twentieth-century inventions have made it possible to feed the current human population on this planet. The first, which Alan Weisman  (Countdown) calls the most important invention in the modern era, is the Haber-Bosch process (1909), which has enabled modern farmers to fix atmospheric nitrogen, vastly increasing the amount of nitrogen available to plant growth from what Nature has bequeathed us through the use of legumes. The second is Norman Borlaug's research (Nobel Peace Prize, 1970) leading to a dwarf disease and mildew-resistant strain of wheat, ushering in the Green Revolution, which has enabled poor Third World farmers to vastly increase their yields. India has gone from being a big importer of food in the 1960's to a net exporter now, thanks to the new strains of wheat. These two developments have extended our numbers from 1.75 billion in 1910 to 7 billion today.

Being able to fix atmospheric nitrogen has enabled us to feed 7 billion people, along with new seed strains from the steady, Herculean labors of Borlaug and his research associates. But nitrogen fertilizer is very costly in terms of CO2 use, and its regular overuse by farmers has created another transgressed boundary, the Nitrogen Cycle. Now, with the prospect of 9-10 billion by the end of this century, GM seeds put us on the threshold of making the next leap in yields, keeping within the Land Use limits that have us crowding the other species in the Cenozoic Ark. This is because GM seeds enable twice the grain yields of organic farming. This is the most important claim in the book. And if, as Lynas suggests, biotech researchers can find a way to induce grainseeds to fix their own nitrogen, that next leap would be assured.

Most of the planetary boundaries are involved with food production, which is not surprising, since feeding our species is the biggest single operation with which we task our host. Climate Change (CO2 emissions, but also methane); nitrogen cycle, land use, freshwater use, toxins, and of course biodiversity loss, which the Planetary Boundaries group ranks as number one, just ahead of climate change. Lynas argues that industrial ag, with the help of GMO's and intelligent use of market capitalism, is far more likely to feed the mass of humanity than traditional agriculture. In addition to huge conservation of land, he points to savings in freshwater usage, though two other boundaries don't fare as well, the nitrogen cycle and toxins. In these cases, though, he feels that new GM crops can help reduce both fertilizer and insecticide/herbicide applications. And he thinks many of the approaches of organic farming, including intercropping and biological pest control, can help in concert with GMO's.

Lynas accepts the importance of thinking ecologically, and grants the fact that this is now a matter of regular policy, business, and political concern - a huge victory for the environmental movement. But as activists, Greens tend not just to educate, but to prescribe, and this is where Lynas believes they once again go wrong in terms of agriculture. Since he was once one of the key anti-GM voices in the UK, he understands the dynamics well. As the journalistic voice of the 29 scientists in the Planetary Boundaries group, he extends the frame of ecological thinking, giving us a more complex and factually accurate basis for judging what are the appropriate tools and methods. For me, this means I must cooly take into account all the boundaries, not just accept the bundle of received opinions intertwined with deeply-held values and gut passions which have guided me heretofore.

I am a longtime organic advocate and organic gardener. And definitely anti-GMO. More than three decades ago, reading Jacques Ellul, I was struck by the gravity of the genetic encoding issue. If we started messing with that, I felt, we were crossing a line, eating not only from the Forbidden Tree, but creating an entirely new tree from which we would eat still more. Monstrous hubris, no?. Now we are routinely playing god, modifying the gene sequences to fit our needs, in agriculture as well as medicine. Monsanto, the biggest player in agricultural seedstock and chemical weed management, has recently won the World Food Prize (mistakenly called the “Nobel Prize for Agriculture”). Yet Monsanto is Greens' most hated agriculture corporation, the model for all that is wrong in industrial agriculture. If Lynas is right, I must be willing to rethink the once-sacred boundary of plants' genetic codes.

Beyond the issue of organic purity, what about the huge human population all these agricultural breakthroughs has afforded? Have we not already transgressed the number of human beings that the biosphere can sustainably support? Lynas insists that there is no numerical boundary for our population. Rather, we can reproduce as much as we would like as long as the nine boundaries are respected. But this is the man who cheerily says we have “only” broken three of the boundaries. Borlaug, on the other hand, lived under the Malthusian shadow. He felt his discoveries would provide a “temporary success in mankind's war against hunger and deprivation,” a breathing space in which to deal with the “Population Monster.”

My own boundary for human population, a gut number after reading many accounts from anthropological and green farming perspectives (while dismissing futurists and demographers, whose numbers I simply could not abide) is around 2 billion people – where we were at the dawn of modern agriculture. My guiding assumptions as I came up with this figure were principally using organic farming, leaving enough habitat for a significant portion of our Cenozoic cousins to survive, and enough fresh water for our species' activities, within reasonable limits that would preserve water for the other 8-10 million species. No matter that Donella Meadows, lead author of Limits to Growth, figured we could feed 10-12 billion. Bless her heart, she was sharp, but died an incurable optimist. That was not the kind of world I wanted to live in.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]