Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Missing the Forest for the Fields Pt4

Sorry I've been a bit slow about responding to all the comments in the last post. There's a reason, but then that would require another post to explain...

In any case, most of the comments appeared on Facebook, but I feel it makes more sense to address them here.

First up, Gigi Little said:

Positively chilling.

I've known for most of my life (meaning not including seven years old and sitting in front of the TV watching the Brady Bunch) that overpopulation is a terror to our planet and that we're deep, deep in it - but I don't think I've ever made the connection you have between it and agriculture.

The problem with talking about all this, of course, is man's natural defensiveness. Our innate hunter-gatherer brains, in fact, which are programmed to defend ourselves no matter what. How do you get something like this through to people when there's so much natural resistance?

Fiction, perhaps? A big, powerhouse novel with the unrelenting muscle of The Wrong House, but which allows people to come to the same conclusions themselves, through reading it? Eh? Eh? Just saying.
I think Gigi really nails the "natural resistance" people have when discussing the negative aspects of agriculture (as you'll see in some of the following comments). To be honest, a month or two ago I would have been just as resistant, so I don't want to pressure anyone to blindly accept my theory that agriculture is the central problem of humanity (after all, it's just a hypothesis), but I do urge you to at least consider it.

Next up is Andrea P.

I know you know this, so I feel redundant pointing it out, but the major fallacy of your argument is that all of the grain crops grown in the midwest go to feed our overpopulated planet. Simply untrue. The vast, vast majority of it is livestock feed. In addition there's the major swaths of land devoted to grazing, and the environmental disaster of hog farms, etc. Don't get me wrong, I think meat can be raised more responsibly, but there's no getting around the fact that it takes 10 lbs of grain to get one pound of meat. And that doesn't even address the water issues (i.e. the enormous quantities of increasingly scarce fresh water needed to raise farm animals). I grew up in Michigan and Illinois and knew from childhood that the food being grown all around wasn't for my consumption. But sure, the planet needs fewer people. Read "Maybe One" by Bill McKibben and convince yourself not to have a second kid. The people really stressing the planet aren't likely to need snorkel rice.
I don't really know whether or not the "vast, vast, majority" of grain grown in the Midwest goes to livestock feed (obviously, at least some of it is going to high-fructose corn syrup and other processed garbage). In any case, I think we can safely say that MUCH of the grain is going to livestock.

Other than that, I... agree. Grain-fed livestock is an environmental disaster (and most probably, unhealthy too). We are wasting huge amounts of water raising livestock while simultaneously polluting what little water is left (although, to be fair, agriculture is doing exactly the same thing).

We need to move back to pasture-raised meat, but as always, we run into the problem of overpopulation and demand outstripping supply. I am curious as to how much meat could sustainably be produced by returning prairie land to grass and allowing the buffalo to return. From what I've read, pre-conquest there may have been as many wild bison roaming the country as there are there are cows in feedlots now. (Yes, I know it'll never happen, but let me dream...)

Of course, if we diverted that "10 lbs" of grain from animals to people (and I should point out that the amount of grain required to produce a pound of animal meat does depend greatly on the specific animal), we would almost certainly increase the population--compounding the problem.

Looks like I'm going to have to read "Maybe One" by Bill McKibben...

...or not. Because according to Daniel:
In counterpoint to the Malthusian claim of "too many humans" is the fact that the biomass of the ants of the world outweigh humans. Just the ants. This is a species that creates complex societies, cities, garbage dumps, factories and farms, cemeteries, etc. yet are a net additive force to whatever biome they live in.

Its not all about fewer humans, it is also about the 'unnatural' way that we do live. If we just take the commandment to reduce and lessen impact but do so in our current construct, the logical outcome is an admonishment to commit suicide or worse as the final environmentalist position.

Well, Gigi responded to the first part of this comment before I could get to it: "Thing is, the kinds of garbage ants leave around aren't plastic and cigarette butts. Unless they've gotten them from us."

I guess I would add that comparing humans to ants in terms of "biomass" might be just as misleading as comparing them simply in terms of numbers. As a species we are very different than ants, and I'm not sure if it's productive to directly compare their environmental impact to ours. Personally, I see more of a similarity to locusts.

Daniel's point is valid, though. If we can change the way we live, we might be able to survive at a much higher population level. But can we?

[SIDE NOTE: Although have I nothing personal against terrestrial ants, watching the Paul Verhoeven documentary "Starship Troopers" has left me with a pronounced fear of any extraterrestrial ants, and I strongly believe in their immediate extermination.]

As to Daniel's second point(s)--I agree that we need to profoundly change our "current construct," but disagree that "the logical outcome is an admonishment to commit suicide or worse as the final environmentalist position."

While it may seem like a sort of "Logan's Run" approach to controlling the population (i.e., killing off members of society after they age out of their "productive" years) is the most straightforward answer, I'm clearly too old myself to support killing off the olds.

I certainly don't have all the answers when it comes to controlling the population. (Remember, this post was initially about identifying agriculture as the central problem of human, not necessarily coming up with the solution.) But while it's true that I have a fairly apocalyptic view of the world (going so far as to write a novel titled The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse), even I can see that there may be less drastic ways of controlling the population.

Many first world countries now have a birthrate below replacement, which at least suggests it's possible to control the population with out reverting to mass suicide or slaughter.

Elizabeth Hickey had a less drastic idea:

[Full Disclosure: I may have had a child with this woman.]

I've been trying to figure out my angle on this huge, intractable problem, and I think it's education for women around the world, because if women are educated they are more likely to limit their families. It won't change the fact that the way we feed ourselves is unsustainable, but it could bring the worldwide population down and ease some of the stress. I still haven't worked out how I'm going to contribute, so if anyone has any suggestions...

In conclusion, I guess I feel like step one is identifying whether or not the problem really is agriculture. Once that questions is decided, then we can move on to step two (i.e., trying to find if there are any realistic solutions short of mass suicide or slaughter). Of course, if we do nothing, billions of people are going to die anyway...

Good lard, this is a long post. I'll shut up now...

Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Paleo Food

So I haven't had a chance to respond to all the comments on the last post (most of them on my Facebook page), but I wanted to post this video, as it comes pretty close to my own views on "evolutionarily appropriate" food.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Missing the Forest for the Fields Pt3

The photo is one I took of a meadow on Mt. Rainer. As part of Mt. Rainer National Park, it's protected. Although the National Park system was controversial when it was first proposed, I think that most people who visit Rainer immediately recognize that such places of spectacular beauty should be protected.

What they don't realize is how much has already been lost.

Yes, our cities and towns have blighted the landscape with their urban sprawl, but it's agriculture that has truly destroyed the natural landscape. I've read that before European settlement, the eastern United States was so densely forested that a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic to the Mississippi without ever touching the ground. Can you imagine how beautiful that must have been?

How about pre-agriculture Europe or Asia?

As Lierre Keith points out:

Ninety-eight percent of the American prairie is gone, turned into a monocrop of annual grains. Plough cropping in Canada has destroyed 99 percent of the original humus. In fact, the disappearance of topsoil “rivals global warming as an environmental threat.” When the rainforest falls to beef, progressives are outraged, aware, ready to boycott. But our attachment to the vegetarian myth leaves us uneasy, silent, and ultimately immobilized when the culprit is wheat and the victim is the prairie.
Okay, I suspect many of you are getting annoyed with me at this point for relentlessly attacking agriculture. After all, what can we do about it? Since our global population has grown obscene and we've already destroyed the natural landscape, there's obviously no way we can go back to a hunter-gatherer existence--even if we wanted to.

My point is that our environmental and population problems are very real and very big. If we continue to ignore agriculture itself as the root agent causing these problem, all our attempts to solve them will be futile.

For instance, I just read this BBC piece on "snorkel" rice today. The headline is "Snorkel rice could feed millions," and it's about how a newly engineered type of rice could greatly increase yields in flood-prone areas.

Now at first glance, that seems like a good thing. How could feeding people be wrong?

But if we first accept that agriculture is humankind's central problem, then we have to reconsider. The history of agriculture has again and again shown that any improvement in yield results in a subsequent increase in population (i.e., more rice, more people). Most likely, snorkel rice will increase the population (not just feed people already alive) and add "millions" to our already obscenely overpopulated world.

Don't get me wrong. I don't want people to starve. But unless we take a broader view than just "it's good to feed people," all our advances in "sustainability" and agriculture are just going to add to population growth. Introducing snorkel rice without finding a way to simultaneously halt (or preferably reverse) population growth is just adding to the problem.

The more people, the more people there are to starve to death when the environment collapses.

Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4

Monday, August 17, 2009

Missing the Forest for the Fields Pt2

The guy in the picture is John Jeavons. His Biointensive approach to agriculture goes WAY beyond simple organic farming in terms of sustainability and efficient use of land. I also have him to thank for the bounty of vegetables I'm eating this summer from my minuscule backyard garden.

But even John Jeavons does not claim that agriculture can be 100% sustainable. Modern industrial farming depletes the land at a phenomenal rate. Top soil that took thousands of years to develop can be plowed away in less than a hundred years (and as the Dust Bowl proved, sometimes much less than a hundred years). Jeavon's techniques attempt to minimize this soil degradation and maximize the caloric content of harvests in order to feed the world's growing population.

In terms of agriculture, I feel that Jeavon's approach (despite being EXTREMELY labor-intensive) is about as good as it gets. And as I said, I use many of the techniques myself (although, in an admittedly half-assed way).

But what if we stop thinking "in terms of agriculture?"

Pre-agriculture, the topsoil of the Great Plains was not only sustainable, IT WAS ACTUALLY IMPROVING. Bison and other game populated the land "in almost unimaginable numbers" (at least according to the anthropologist Melvin Konner), living off the vegetation and, in the case of predators, other animals. Far from depleting resources in the manner of high-density feedlots, the animals fertilized the soil with their feces, urine, and (when death came) bones.

And the people who lived there? They ate both the vegetation AND the animals.

So before making the claim that eating meat is not sustainable, it's important to understand that it WAS sustainable for almost the entire history of humanity. Whereas, agriculture (conventional, organic, Biointensive, or otherwise) has NEVER been sustainable.

I suspect at this point that many of you want to counter with the argument that with seven billion people walking around, there's no way we can abandon the fields and go back to hunting bison. Well, you're right. But then again, since agriculture isn't sustainable, NEITHER IS THE CURRENT WORLD POPULATION.

If we use more Biointensive-style agriculture techniques and switch to more "calorically-efficient" vegan diets are we really going to save the environment? Or, instead, will the Biointensive/vegan approach just allow the world's population to get even bigger and thus LESS SUSTAINABLE?

Agriculture and population are inseperable issues. Agriculture is what caused the population explosion, which in turn, drives the need for more agriculture. Every time there's an "improvement" in agricultural techniques (such as the introduction of chemical fertilizers) there is a concurrent increase in population. Without the "Green Revolution," would India have ever topped a billion people?

So when people say that a grain-based diet is more sustainable than an animal-based diet, you have to ask what they're trying to "sustain." The ludicrous overpopulation of Homo sapiens that is causing catastrophic irreversible damage to the global environment?

(Continuing... In the mean time, I urge you to read the introduction to Lierre Keith's The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice and Sustainability. And thanks Gigi for the comment. I'm glad I haven't alienated all my vegetarian friends... at least not yet.)

Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Missing the Forest for the Fields

Lately, I've been positively bombarded with links to articles discussing how meat consumption leads to Global Warming and/or Environmental Collapse.

While it's true that the people sending me these links are mostly vegetarian (i.e., not entirely unbiased when it comes to eating meat), I think they have a good point. Eating meat most certainly does contribute to the environmental degradation we are currently experiencing (and I should note, HAVE BEEN EXPERIENCING FOR THE LAST 10,000 YEARS).

The problem with the anti-meat argument is, I believe, one of missing the forest for the trees (or fields, as I so wittily used in the title to this post).

I think most rational people would agree that in order to find a solution to a problem, it's first necessary to identify the problem itself. For instance, I've been fat most of my life. I tried any number of cure (in fact, I tried EVERY number of cure), but it was only once I learned that I was insulin resistant that I was able to succesfully lose weight. Without addressing the central issue (i.e, insulin resistance), all my previous attempts at losing weight were ineffectual at best and downright disastrous at worst.

When it comes to the Global Environmental Collapse we seem to continuously come up with "solutions" that fail to address the central problem--whether it's banning fluorocarbons to save the ozone layer, recycling plastic to minimize landfills, or abstaining from meat to slow Global Warming. Yes, these "solutions" address some of the symptoms of environmental degradation, but in terms of the central problem, their benefits are negligible. After all, IT'S A BIG FUCKING PROBLEM.

So what is the central problem?

Well, up until recently, I would have said that the problem was overpopulation. But it's finally dawned on me that overpopulation is indeed another SYMPTOM and not the actual problem itself. The problem is...

Agriculture.

(Obviously, I'm going to continue with this post, but in the mean time, I urge you to read Jared Diamond's short essay "The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race." In fact, I COMMAND you to read it.)

Part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Why Rite-Aid Should Sell Crack


Imagine if not just marijuana, but ALL street drugs were suddenly legalized tomorrow.

What would happen?

First, it would rapidly cause the price of drugs to plummet. After all, the reason drugs are expensive is simply because they're illegal. Legal poppy plants, coca plants, and marijuana plants grown on an industrial scale would make the cost of maintaining an individual's drug habit negligible.

Second, the drop in drug prices would then drastically reduce most drug-related crimes, would empty out our overcrowded prisons and provide needed space for truly violent offenders, would eliminate most gang-related violence, would globally devastate organized crime by eliminating its principle means of earning money, would end the reign of brutal drug cartels in places like Mexico and Columbia, and would cut off the funding for the Taliban and for the many terrorist organizations that support themselves through drug production and sales.

Of course, there might also be a small downside…