The new shades of green

Green rumor has it that it requires an astonishing 25,000 gallons (= 100,000 liters) of water to produce two pounds of beef. Cows, wherever they are being raised, are not just unsuitable for a healthy thinking human’s consumption, they are terribly thirsty and while growing fat enough to be turned into hamburgers they deplete the earth of most of its so valuable water supplies. Raising cattle therefore can, must, be seen as a rather unethical response to the world population’s demands of food.

I am quick to underline this is not my personal opinion – remember, I am living in Kansas cattle country supreme, I have neighbors and friends who are dedicated ranchers and would hate to be pointed out as the willful producers of the “biggest of all ecological cock-ups in modern history,” and I do not want to end up being shot at by “T.W.” from his pick-up truck. Is it really true what the greens are saying? If so, can I in all sincerity continue to live here, in Matfield Green, where I am permanently surrounded by hundreds of thousands of beef on the hoof, without causing damage to my soul? Think of the oceans of much needed water that now cannot be put to good use for swimming pools and dishwashers and ice cube machines, stolen as it is from our good ol’ earth by all these ugly, thirsty animals. Luckily for me I discover after doing just a little research that the figure mentioned above is largely inflated. I also learn it is an absurd assumption that every drop of water that falls on a pasture disappears into the animals that graze it, never to re-emerge.

But think of all the greenhouse gas emissions that livestock are responsible for! That’s bad, isn’t it? Well, it is, at least until I discover by reading Simon Fairley’s book ‘Meat: A Benign Extravaganza’ that many vegetable oils have a much larger footprint than animal fats, that in fact “even vegan farming necessitates the large-scale killing or ecological exclusion of animals: pests.” Not that Fairley is not critical of the Beef First crowd if necessary; he slaughters the claims made by some livestock producers about all the soil carbon they can lock away.

Of course there are many terrible shortcomings in the way much of the world’s nutrition is produced and distributed. Many idiocies, too. The greens have all the reason in the world to blame us all, producers and consumers alike. But they shouldn’t base their critique on facts that are either not true at all, or outdated. A lot has happened since the good old hippie days and the time of the Club of Rome; we now know more than ever before; and often we know better. Which, I guess, is why one of my gurus of all time, Stewart Brand, decided it was time he changed his mind and his stance with regards to many “hot” earthy subjects. No one can doubt that Brand is the greenest primus inter all green pares; his credentials are second to none. He studied ecology with Paul Ehrlich before most Americans knew how to pronounce the word, he dropped acid with Ken Kesey when most Americans still thrived on Marlboro Lights, he confided with Wendell Berry and The Land Institute’s Wes Jackson (see my Ozgoodie # 20) way back in the good old days, and he continues to live on a tugboat in San Francisco Bay. He is the one who founded that quintessential 1960s publication ‘The Whole Earth Catalog’, followed by ‘The Whole Earth Magazine’; he co-started the Long Now Foundation as well as the Global Business Network; and he forewarned the Pentagon on the dangers of rapid climate shifts at a time when practically everyone else was still in denial of any melting of glaciers and warming of the earth.

Brand cares about the earth (with a capital E) and the fate of humanity no less today than in the 1960s. Forever the daring philosopher, never afraid of posting novel ideas (and proven a correct visionary thinker many times over), but also a cautious pragmatic, Brand in his most recent book shows he has changed his mind about how to exercise that care. A surprising step, a leap rather, that surprised many of his followers. Who apparently had not listened too good to his musings over the years and are still defining his original green ideas, especially now these have become theirs, as holy; some of them must think he has cruelly deserted them, which, after all those years of deep devotion they honored him with, hurts them … yes, deep down there.

Brand calls his new book ‘An Ecopragmatist Manifesto’. More people in the cities of the world, lots of nuclear power stations, lots of GM crops – that is what the future has to be all about. The book was published or at least written before “Fukushima” happened, but I doubt that this ongoing drama will be the cause of a new change of his brilliant mind. Essentially, it says nuclear power is the least to fear; coal, that is where the problems are. Also, putting billions and billions of dollars into weak if not failing nuclear waste storage areas is, in his words, “nutty.” And he says, “Why commit to entombment ‘for the duration of thousands of years’ of radioactive waste with the existing technology,” which itself will not last for thousands of years. Adapt and keep the options open; in the future we will find much better ways of dealing with the toxic stuff. And he adds with characteristic irony, “If we are back in the stone age by then already, decaying nuclear waste dumps will be the least of our worries.”

The profoundly unnatural human activity for Brand is agriculture, at least agriculture in the way we have dealt with it over time. Either find new “innocent” ways, such as those The Land Institute is trying to develop, or “swap around genes,” which in Brand’s eyes was no big deal already twenty years ago. Ouch, say the dogmatic greens. But Brand says: think clear and learn from mistakes; GM crops can make life on earth better, they are more sustainable and more adaptable to climate change (which, as we know all know, we cannot escape any longer). Do not oppose helpful technology, Brand says; this is the biggest mistake the green movement has ever made. The environmentalists must not shift their ideology, but, hear this, “discard ideology altogether.” Don’t walk away from geoengineering even if its options may today sound “like a collection of hubristic schemes dreamed up by mad scientists,” and remember, mitigation almost never works.

Pack the mega cities with more people, Brand also says. Most of them will work their way out of poverty as fast as they can and with better chances of success than rural life can provide to the growing populations; crammed within small spaces, the city dwellers will exact a lower environmental cost than they would if still living in the countryside. Expect a zillion micro-enterprises to raise their head in the world’s (over-)crowded population centers, says Brand, with better opportunities especially for women, who never got much chance in Walden, did they? Brand, as soon as he is through with shaking the reader up, as always leaves him with a clearer insight in the problems of the present and with a vision of the future that includes hope instead of despair and, moreover, a ton of optimistic curiosity.

Meanwhile, nature’s choreography is influencing all our dreams and perceptions. The Saharan and Asian deserts each year carry 75 million tons of dust by prevailing winds away to fertilize the Amazon basin and other essentially fertile areas of the earth. You would never guess the amount of nutrients they deliver to the rainier parts of the planet. For thousands of years, and “without any fuss,” as historians say, a few tiny and poor parts of the world have annually subsidized the growth economy of the world’s most richly endowed. The earth performs an intricate dance with air, water and fire in the service of life. And so, “another reminder is given of the enduring intercontinental interdependence that sustains human civilization.”

On the other hand, many existing lands are lost, with according to the U.N. annually 75 billion tons of soil (= 25 million of arable acres) destroyed by erosion, waterlogging and salination. Also annually, the same land area is lost for food production thanks to degradation of the soil quality. The Washington D.C. based Worldwatch Institute states that it takes between 250 and 1,000 years to renew one inch of soil. Yet soil renewal is not high on governments’ and farmers’ lists because in general it occurs so slowly that one hardly notices. The United States, which only just avoided turning the whole Great Plains into a dust bowl in the 1930s, is still losing soil 18 times more rapidly than it is forming it. In China in the past twenty-five years 600 square miles turned into desert each year. And something like 20,000 villages and small towns in northern and western China alone have been entirely or partly abandoned as a result of being overrun by drifting sands.

It is easy to see why the complexity of the world leads to controversial opinion and prescriptions. For every Stewart Brand apostle there are four Americans who deny climate change and another four who deep in their hearts are convinced the earth was created 6,000 years ago by divine intervention which will take care of all problems for ever and ever as long as we pray. The remaining one out of ten doesn’t think about anything at all, other than, maybe, that happiness has no purpose at all because you cannot buy money with it. But one thing is undeniable at least in my eyes: the yearly burning of the tallgrass prairie is for the greater good. The cattle of the Flint Hills area have the opportunity to become the primest of prime beef. And, most important, the grasses re-grow stronger, strong enough to withstand any attacks by “imported sands.” The prairie thus is aided to remain healthy and alive. The green people of Kansas, many of them so adverse to prairie burning because it pollutes the skies and blows a little dust to their sharply mowed lawns, whatever, with Stewart Brand should think clear and learn of mistakes; they should discard any form of ideology. If they do not, they can just as well join the intelligent design crowd.

By the way, I am reminded that the real culprit with raising cattle is the huge amounts of water used to grow corn and feed the beef-to-be in feedlots and the milk cows in their barns. It is not the direct relation of cattle drinking water or even the growing of grass for cattle. After all, the amount of carbon sequestration in the grasslands, especially by the tall grasses, is superb. As Jane Koger says, “Imagine me being able to sell carbon credits to some damn polluter — me making money and him getting away with murder, possibly literally!”

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, January 2012 

Photo: January along Madison Road, Kansas. Brown grasses after a long drought.