Human re-shaping of our natural infrastructure has confronted us with existential issues. This column is one in a series that began with, The Issue of Our Time.
September 11, 2001, remains a searing event in my memory. My wife and I were living in Manhattan on that day and were intensely interested in investigations that followed. Who knew what? When? And, how diligent were the authorities in investigative follow-through?
An informal view that resonated with me concluded that it is hard, if not impossible; to prevent what cannot be imagined. Commandeering passenger planes and flying them into buildings seemed the stuff of movies. Intelligence officials and their elected bosses failed to process evidence of a potential attack to a timely and logical conclusion and preventive actions.
The threats as a consequence of climate change face a similar obstacle. The threat is even more troubling as the attackers are us, 7.5 billions of us. Generations of actions have created the risks; yet, we are told that society must be reordered, now!
And, we all know the overriding incentive that leads to self-denial. We continue behaviors that are proven to be harmful because they give us pleasure.
I grew up several miles from a farm my grandparents owned. I know what “hoeing cotton” means. Farmhands, using hoes, chopped the weeds that were competing with the cotton plants. As I would ride with my Grandfather to the farm, rows of workers were evident as they, to use another long gone phrase, were “chopping cotton”. Given the time and costs associated with this labor intensive effort, “poor land” was not planted.
The unplanted spaces were in tree rows with grasses and bushy plant life on either side. Today it might be called a pollinator or wildlife corridor.
What displaced these labor intensive practices in agricultural were chemicals that kill plants, generational improvements in farm machinery and government subsidies; they combined to eliminate wildlife corridors. There was certainly not a plan of action to eliminate the bees and butterflies or to release more CO2 in the atmosphere, but there was a plan of action to scale-up to maximize profit. Scaling up is capital intensive and turned into an invitation for intense commercialization. Return on investment is the dominant principle.
As the farmers, now mostly corporate, were maximizing profit, so too were the chemical and machinery industries. Reshaping nature was not explicit and that is a part of the problem—the formula: all reward no risks. Commodity production was the goal—traditional farm economics and environmental risks were overwhelmed.
Damming rivers also became an aggressive intrusion on nature’s balance during my lifetime. A cluster of special interests began an insistent campaign for more lakes. While flood control of river basins was said to be the reason, recreation was often the motivating force. My Dad’s business had several hundred square feet devoted to fishing and hunting equipment. Bass Pro Shop’s retail stores today are thousands of square feet and its catalog is thicker than many dictionaries.
Technology helped serve our pleasure with lower commodity prices and new ways to spend our discretionary dollars. We went along for the ride—only our out-of-pocket costs were influential. Environmental costs were mostly not considered.
As earlier noted my wife and I live on a farm called Nature’s Reach and over several years we have given nature some help by re-creating wetlands, meadows and a tree grove.
We also started beekeeping with several colonies of honey bees and have become fascinated by their activities. But, more important than our honey bees, are the thousands of pollinators that now make Nature’s Reach their home. I should add: our garden flourishes.
My point is not to extoll obsolete and labor-intensive farming or what we have done at Nature’s Reach, but simply to point out what big feet humans have and how nature responds. Unfortunately we, for our own comfort, have often chosen to be imperious Kings and Queens of nature, not stewards.
Much of what we value we count. We know about our own dollars and cents and the news media tell us each day whether the stock market is up or down. But, if I asked about the comparative population of pollinators in say 1960 and 2018, a satisfactory answer could not be found. Indeed only scientists would even attempt an answer. Fortunately I do not need to rely on computer models; I can see the dramatic changes on my farm.
I use pollinators illustratively, because of my personal experiences. Much more importantly, pollinators are as essential as clean water and air. They are keystones of nature’s balance. Our failure to protect them is a systemic failure—likewise climate change.
As I wrap this up, let me return to the central narrative—humans make a huge difference and those who have an intense interest in continuing to do things without due regard for the environmental consequences are quite good as my Dad would say, at “selling us a bill of goods.”
We need to comprehend our role in damaging nature’s profound balance and take the lead both at home and globally to reverse damaging trends.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.