Monthly Archives: January 2015

Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

Rider Park, Lycoming County, PA.

Rider Park, Lycoming County, PA.

After my last post, I feel the need to take a stronger stand against wealth inequality. Though I have no doubt that it “matters”, there are plenty of arguments, some from noted economists, that the world can continue on in this unequal fashion just fine, and there are even some that claim that inequality is actually a wonderful thing (and just as many that say it can’t, and isn’t). But, in the midst of trying to determine which of these arguments have merit, an article that a friend recommended made me realize that I’m not thinking nearly big enough, and, like the saying goes, I haven’t been seeing the forest for the trees.

The article is a scholarly one, by David W. Kidner of Nottingham Trent University in the UK, entitled “Industrialism and the Fragmentation of Temporal Structure”. If you want to tackle the original, then click on the PDF button on this page. However, I’ll try to condense some of his ideas here, at the risk of oversimplifying, and at the risk of melding some of my ideas with his.

Kidner’s key idea is, perhaps, that industrialism has profoundly changed the world, AND has changed how we think about the world. We have become part of the industrial system, and if we aren’t careful, our solutions to environmental problems will come from within this industrial mindset. But if industrialism itself is antithetical to nature, as it gives every appearance of being, then such solutions may well be false. So how does industrialism change how we think? Partly, according to Kidner, by altering our sense of time in ways that cause us to focus too much on the immediate. Things that came before, or things that will follow after, are increasingly eclipsed by an abnormal focus on the present. This is combined with a modern habit of seeing “nature” as a static state; a snapshot in present time. The reality is far more complex, however—the natural world is not a single state, but rather a pattern that plays out over time. Nature can’t be understood at a fixed moment; such an attempt is too reductionist. As Kidner puts it, “…fragmentation sucks the meaning out of the world”. If we are to truly see the natural world, then we must step back, not just spatially, but temporally. When we do this, we see a great continuum, where the past, present, and future are all one “thing”; one process; one pattern.

And, when we get to this point, we can begin to see how destructive industrialism has been. Industrialized humans, by ignoring the past and the future, are completely disrupting these patterns in time. In fact, Kidner asserts that the consequences of our current actions far exceed our ability to predict their future effects. We are in effect smashing things that are far, far removed from us in time, and in ways that we are unable to understand. As he puts it, we are “colonizing the future”. A related effect of this reduced temporal view is that we tend to see nature as it was earlier in our own lifetimes as the norm, when that state could have already been far degraded. But many of these degradations, while nearly instantaneous in geologic time, move just slowly enough in terms of human perception as to render them barely noticeable (for a discussion of this see my post, “Global Warming for the Skeptical“). Only by training ourselves to see things from a temporal distance can we begin to see both the destruction that humans have caused, and the changes that today’s actions will cause; one lifetime’s worth of personal experience just isn’t encompassing enough to see the patterns. Global warming, the buildup of toxic chemicals, mountaintop removal mining, the loss of topsoil, desertification, nuclear waste, the wholesale alteration of land and sea, the mushrooming of human populations, extinctions—with some temporal distance it becomes clear that these are all occurring very, very quickly, and that we are at risk of permanently destroying the earth’s natural systems. (A perfect example of all of this short-term thinking—the article about sea-level rise in Florida in the current National Geographic Magazine, which mentions how developers and politicians are purposefully using 50-year projections rather than 100-year ones, because the latter show enough sea-level rise to render huge parts of Florida uninhabitable.)

So much for the Everglades. Florida with one meter of sea-level rise, an amount predicted to occur well before 2100.

So much for the Everglades. NASA image of Florida with one meter of sea-level rise, an amount predicted to occur well before 2100.

Realizing how constrained we are in our thinking is important, because if we try and deal with our problems from within an industrial viewpoint that focuses nearly exclusively on present states, one that ignores patterns in time, then we get answers that are invalid. We must have the courage to step outside of our viewpoints that are colored by our industrial experiences, even if we can’t see how solutions will work within the context of our current political or cultural realities. To not do so is to become captive to our current myopic view, and will result in limited answers that fail to “get out of the box”, so to speak.

So, to get back to where I started, this was the thought that made me realized that my efforts to decide how to argue against global wealth inequality is an example of what Kidner is discussing, Continue reading

“Staggering” Inequality

living-on-one-dollar-2

A film about young Americans trying to live at the world poverty line of $1 a day. It is well worth watching, and is available on Netflix.

“Simply staggering”. That’s how Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam, referred to global wealth inequality this past week. And the numbers are indeed staggering. Among the figures recently compiled—the richest 1% now own 48% of the world’s wealth, and will soon own more than half, and the richest 80 people in the world own more than the entire bottom half of the world’s population combined. Just to copy how I saw someone describe this yesterday, “Yes, that’s 80:3,500,000,000”. Then I watched the film “Living on One Dollar”, in which four college students from the U.S. move to Guatemala and attempt to live at the international poverty line of $1 a day (recently raised to $1.25), and it is just so very clear that the tiniest amounts of aid, if delivered effectively, could completely change the lives of people worldwide who are stuck in vicious cycles of poverty, who are unable to properly feed their children, who lack access to clean water or medical care, and who are unable to afford education. The amount I might spend on a snack on the way home from work could easily double a poor family’s income for a day.

But, let’s back up and look at this disparity, as how we got here isn’t as difficult to understand as some might think. First, the things that cause inequality within wealthy nations are slightly different from the things that cause inequality between the world’s nations. In terms of the United States, for example, you may have seen the YouTube video that went viral the other year–

While shocking, you don’t need Leftist conspiracy theories to explain how things ended up this way in wealthy countries. People who are bright and hardworking and get an education have a great deal to offer the market economy, and they are generally rewarded for it with high salaries. And, these people with high salaries spend a great deal less, proportionally, on food and clothes and the other necessities of life, than the less fortunate do. So, with a little willpower, they can save and invest chunks of their incomes, and, over time, grow wealthy. They can fund their children’s educations, they can use their money and influence to maintain the political situations that enable them to build wealth, and they can pass on their estates to their children due to low inheritance taxes. They can also use their social and political connections to help their children get into the best schools, and to subsequently help them find lucrative employment, all of which keep the wealthy wealthy. It isn’t a great mystery. (And in an odd coincidence, this week’s cover story in The Economist, “America’s New Aristocracy”  is all about how the wealthy are more and more able to ensure that their children also become wealthy).

At the other end of the spectrum, those with less to offer the market economy find themselves competing both with technology, which can ever more efficiently do low-skill jobs, and with foreign workers, who will do those jobs for less pay. With these forces depressing both wages and employment levels, people at the bottom find it ever more difficult to get ahead, as it often takes their entire incomes just to stay even. Their children fall victim to a huge array of pitfalls, and more often than not end up impoverished themselves.

Ford robots- cropped

Modern economies require fewer low-skilled workers, as automated systems become more and more capable. This trend will likely continue.

And while Inequality in the US is extreme, the fact is that inequality by world standards is even worse. The reasons for this are a bit different, but are also not difficult to understand. Wealthy nations have learned to create wealth, and that wealth makes it easier to create ever more wealth, in a virtuous cycle. Poor nations, by contrast, often have problems that derail wealth creation, and find themselves actually going backwards. I wrote about this in my post “Wealth 101“; I’ll copy two paragraphs here– Continue reading

…And Now the Monarchs.

monarch

As with the honeybees, monarch butterflies are suffering catastrophic declines, for many of the same reasons—loss of habitat and pesticide use among them.

“Where are all the monarchs, Dad?” This, from my 10-year-old son, while out for a walk this past summer. I had been somewhat wondering that same thing myself, because I hadn’t seen any monarchs lately, either, but I didn’t think too much more about it at the time. But I’ve recently read articles that spelled it out—monarch butterflies have declined 90% in the last twenty years. There are a number of culprits here. The most important, perhaps, is a drastic reduction in the number of milkweed plants in the United States, which are the monarchs’ sole food for portions of their lives. The decline of the milkweed, in turn, has been caused by an increase in the amount of land under cultivation, and the all-too-common use of Roundup and other herbicides on GMO crops. These are some of the same problems that are affecting honeybees (post: “Bees: Our Problems in Miniature“). Monarch butterflies are also losing habitat in central Mexico, where they over-winter, due to illegal logging. I won’t try to recount it all here, but here are a few good articles, in Newsweek, and National Geographic, and there are plenty of others online.

monarch catapillar

A monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant, their sole food source at this stage of their lives.

The bigger question, beyond what has caused this, is what we can do about it? A few things come to mind right away—

— Don’t put pesticides or herbicides on your lawn. Ever. This one is a no-brainer. (See posts “Leave it a Lawn” and “Leave it a Lawn Part Deux“). And if you happen to own other land or rural property, consider not mowing it every year. We humans might think that a short green lawn or freshly mown field looks good, but nature doesn’t necessarily agree.

— Buy some organic food. Or buy lots of organic food. (Post: “Not with Your Mouth Full“). The dollars we spend as consumers are often our most powerful tools, and if you don’t like the effects of industrial-scale agri-business and the pesticides and herbicides they use, then don’t support those companies with your food dollars. On the flip side, do support those farmers and growers who are farming in ways that are far gentler on the planet, or even restorative (post: “An Important Piece of the Puzzle“).

Plant some milkweed. I just went out in the fields and gathered a whole bunch of milkweed seeds, and I’ll be planting them this spring, along with other wildflowers for the honeybees (and honeybees just happen to love milkweed nectar, too…). Seeds are available online, as well (and many are free). If you order seeds, though, make sure to get milkweed varieties that are native to your area and climate; there are about fifteen different types. And in the fall when the seeds pop out, give seeds to your friends and get them to plant them, too. When butterflies are adults, they eat nectar from flowers just like bees do, so flowers and flowering trees and bushes are also good choices.

Milkweed seeds...

Milkweed seeds…

— Lastly, consider donating to (or volunteering with) a group that is working to protect the monarchs. There are numerous conservation groups dedicated to this cause, such as Save Our Monarchs, the Monarch Butterfly Fund, and the World Wildlife Fund. These groups work to raise awareness, to plant milkweed plants, and to preserve other butterfly habitat, including the forests where they over-winter.

A nice little clip from PBS about the annual monarch migration–

So, I try to act, but I don’t often directly exhort others to. But, I’m going to make an exception today— DO SOMETHING. Be a part of slowing down our ongoing environmental destruction, in some way, in some fashion. Please. If not the monarch, pick some other area to get involved with, there’s no shortage. The world is changing quickly—if my 10-year-old is noticing change, then that should be a warning in and of itself.

Beautiful pictures in this post—my thanks to:
Top image credit: “Monarch Butterfly”, by Peter Miller, Flickr Creative Commons.
Caterpillar: “Monarch Caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed”, by Seney Natural History Association, Flickr Creative Commons.
Seeds: “Milkweed Retching”, by Keith Carver, Flickr Creative Commons.

Up Another Notch, Florida

“…man is part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” —Rachel Carson,  Silent Spring, 1962.

Florida panther

A Florida panther. Only about 120 still live in the wild. Their biggest threat is unrelenting development, which pushes them into smaller and smaller areas.

I just got back from Florida. I grew up there, running barefoot through the palmettos and live oaks with my siblings, and learning about Ponce de Leon and the Suwanee River in grade school. I’ve only been back a few times as an adult, and the last time was over twenty years ago. And this time, though on vacation and truly enjoying the weather,  I couldn’t help but view southern Florida through the lens of sustainability and this blog. Unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed. While huge numbers of Floridians are trying desperately to protect and restore natural systems there, I don’t think it’s enough, and I think they’re slowly being overwhelmed and are losing the battle. Because of this, I think that the people of Florida need to step it up yet another notch. All of the people of Florida.

My unscientific impressions of the place—profligate water use, pesticides being applied right next to waterways filled with birds, endless rows of strip-malls and gated developments and sprawl, near-zero use of electric vehicles, an emphasis on consumption, no solar energy production to speak of, no clearly marked sustainable choices in the seafood sections of the grocery stores, hundreds of thousands of people, and congestion. And perhaps the most troubling—bulldozers and excavators on all fronts, carving up nature as if a gold rush were on. Huge numbers of people seem to be completely oblivious to all of this as they drive their shiny new SUVs and high-dollar sports cars between jewelry stores and clothing outlets, and others seem to be actively cheerleading—several articles in the first local paper I picked up were praising the local politicians that enabled this year’s deals for yet more golf courses and upscale developments.

This was all in southwest Florida, but I have no illusions that the Miami side of the state is any different. And in between the two—the Everglades, one and half million acres of (partially) protected land. We went down partly to see it again, and partly to escape the cities. A display at the entrance to the Park Headquarters was foreboding, however, describing the park as an “ecosystem on life support”. The visitors’ center and rangers spelled much of it out; how the water used to flow down all the way from the Orlando area, into Lake Okeechobee, and from there to the southern coast in huge, slow-moving sheets of pristine water, sixty miles or more wide and filled with sawgrass, but had now been channeled and diverted and drained and polluted, leaving the park continually at the mercy of politicians and water management boards, who often seemed to give preferential treatment to big corporate interests.

swamp covercroppedIntrigued, that evening I picked up a book on the subject, Michael Grunwald’s “The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise”. The book is fantastic—Grunwald is a phenomenal writer, and captures the essence of the story in a wide-ranging scope that extends from prehistoric times all the way to today, in a story as fast-paced as an action thriller. And the book contained some surprises. The biggest surprise, to me, was how for a hundred years or more, everyone wanted the Everglades drained. Politicians, settlers, conservationists, everyone. It was seen as a “liquid wasteland”, virtually impassable, unproductive for human purposes, nearly limitless, and filled with nothing but snakes and mosquitos and alligators.

Draining it was no easy task, but millions were spent, and after decades of near-heroic efforts, the water was channelized and directed and dammed and diverted and shunted out to sea, so that ranchers and growers could graze and plant. But then came the unending stream of unintended consequences—areas so dry that the very soil burned, land subsidence, runoff that came in unmoderated bursts and flushed vast loads of agricultural chemicals into Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchi and the St. Lucie. The Everglades, cut off from its lifeblood of fresh water, dried and permitted human access, where people shot wading birds and alligators and panthers and carried off the orchids, and invasive species took hold and began to permanently alter the ecology. Aquifers statewide saw saltwater encroachment as the weight of fresh groundwater diminished. Florida Bay and the other estuaries suffered in kind, with the former denied the fresh water it needed, and the latter overwhelmed by too much of the same. Mangroves, manatees, and shellfish suffered there, along with the coral reefs and all the fishes that depended on them. Algae blooms and red tides became common, Lake Okeechobee was imprisoned in huge circular dike, and the entire ecosystem, from Orlando to  Key West, was drastically diminished by human intervention.

test

The Everglades. In its original form, a “river of grass” that extended for hundreds of miles.

And then they tried to fix it. They’re still trying to fix it. Billions have been allocated, to undam and unchannelize the water, and to make filter areas to suck up and trap agriculture chemicals. But, these efforts have been hamstrung by political gridlock, and by conflicting goals of corporations and growers and burgeoning urban areas.

The environmentalists have worked, and still work, feverishly to protect it all, but every day thousands more people move to southern Florida, and governments at all levels give lip service to slowing the human tide, and yet approve 99% of all development applications. Almost every new arrival needs a house, and a job, and water, and schools, and electricity, and a place to put their garbage and sewage. The power companies, burning fossil fuels, emit mercury and other pollutants that add to nature’s woes, and CO2 that accelerates the warming of the planet and the rising of the seas, itself a huge threat to an area only a few feet above sea level.

Roseate

Roseate spoonbills. The number of wading birds like these in the Everglades is down 90% since the 1940s.

So what to do? I can read and learn, and pledge my support to the groups fighting tirelessly on the front, but there’s something I can’t do– I can’t vote in Florida. But the people in Florida can, and they need to, and they need to vote with nature in mind, because ultimately, as Rachel Carson said, nature is them, and it underpins their economy and their very existence as Floridians. What needs to be done is no great mystery, politicians just need the political will to do it. And voters can give them that will, if they want to, by making their desires known, en masse. Florida needs a dramatic change of course. Even more than other parts of the country, they need energy efficiency and net-zero houses and electric cars and solar panels on every roof. They need to progressively tax those jewelry-store-shopping wealthy people and millionaire owners of second homes, they need to curb the influence of money in their politics, and they need to virtually stop development. They need to buy out farmers and ranchers and restore the natural flow of the rivers, as they’ve begun to do on the Kissimmee, and they need to build state-of-the-art sewage and stormwater treatment plants that release water that’s clean enough to drink, because there’s no place to put polluted water in Florida. They need to quit watering the grass on every highway median and every lawn, and embrace restorative and organic agriculture instead of vast expanses of petrochemical monocultures. They need to end subsidies to the sugar industry, they need to enforce their own pollution laws, and they need to create even more wildlife refuges, including marine ones. Florida, threatened more than most places by global warming and sea-level rise, needs to lead the way, to set the example, to be on the cutting edge of a new, sustainable path, instead of continually being dragged reluctantly along by the concerned few.

And, everybody else, and I mean everybody, needs to do the same in their own neck of the woods, because we are all connected. Nature is a great, huge, interconnected web, and if we don’t do better, then the problems in Florida are going to eventually land on our very own doorsteps. Floridians need to step it up a notch, but the rest of the world needs to as well. It isn’t impossible. As the restoration of the Kissimmee River shows, it is possible to undo our mistakes. The time is now, and the place is wherever you are, and there’s work enough for us all.

Kissimmee_River_Restoration

A portion of the restored Kissimmee River. Long portions of the C-38 Canal, visible here as a straight line, have been filled in and the river is free once again to find its own course, and to moderate flows, cleanse the water, provide recreational opportunities, and nourish wildlife along the way.

 Note- 3 Jan 2015— I just learned today that Florida voters recently approved a state constitutional amendment that will direct billions of excise tax money into conservation programs. Wonderful news, and an example of the power of voting. Keep that pressure up, Florida…

Top image credit: US Army Corps of Engineers.
 Everglades image: “Sawgrass”, by George, Flickr Creative Commons.
Kissimmee River: Wikimedia Commons.
Roseate spoonbills: “She Said What?”, by vladeb, Flickr Creative Commons.