The Case for a Humanized Wilderness

           “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.”

                                                 – Henry David Thoreau

In May of this year, I embarked upon a backpacking trip in the mountains of Northern Argentina, along the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a region famous for its sweeping desert landscapes and indigenous culture. During the trek I was as much captivated by the natural vistas as by the presence of civilization up in the high mountains: the subsistence pastoralists who tread upon the same footpaths carved out by their Incan ancestors. I enjoy hiking in natural environs as a means for adventure and meditation. The contrast between a rugged mountain ridge and the familiar urban conditions in which I’ve grown up is refreshing, and I always seem to stumble upon new insights during the hike back down. However, as a result of my interactions with the pastoralists up in the Quebrada, I cannot help but think something’s missing from my usual wild haunts up in, say, California’s Sierra Nevada… but what could it be? Continue reading

Epochs of Human-Nature Relations

I’m currently in a rural area of Paraguay. Most people in my community practice subsistence agriculture using hand-tools. Moving here after living in (sub)urban areas of the United States all my life has allowed me some perspective on the ways in which humans interact with their natural environment. Since my job involves promoting sustainable, small-scale agriculture I’ve had a lot of time and context to think about these interactions particularly as they relate to agricultural use of lands, so there’s a particular degree of focus in that area I’ll be exploring in future essays on this blog. For this post, however, I’ve taken a more general approach and divided the historical stages of interactions between humans and their natural environments into five parts: Continue reading

Recently perused articles

  • First up, an analysis from Yale Environment 360 on the permanent damage from “megafires” caused by “megadroughts” in the American Southwest, due to a changing climate that’s causing extreme weather patterns.
  • Even as we’re seeing more evidence of the effects of anthropogenic climate change, global climate change hardly registers as a threat for Americans, as only 40% view it as a serious problem. The rest of the world doesn’t fare much better, according to Pew Research, with only Latin America being a region where climate change is the top issue.
  • President Obama proposed new climate change policy last Tuesday. How do water issues factor in? This National Geographic column analyzes his speech for answers.
  • Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have been shrouded in smoke recently, as slash-and-burn agriculture pollution from Indonesia has found its way to its neighbors, much like Japan’s been experiencing China’s less savory airborne exports, leading to record levels of smog. Palm oil production and timber harvesting industries are the main culprits in this case. Indonesia — in particular its rapid deforestation — presents some interesting environmental issues, so I’ll be writing a full-length post on it soon. Apparently, according to this BBC Q&A,

“300 football fields of forest are cleared every hour” across the globe to make way for palm oil plantations.

Continue reading

Reflections on Food Systems From an Agricultural Island

I’m working full-time on organic farms on Lopez Island in Washington State this summer, which is why I haven’t had much time to post. It’s a small but friendly community here, about 2,000 people on 30 sq mi of land. It’s also a microcosm for organic farming. I work at one farm that has sheep, pigs, and vegetable growing three days a week, and a strawberry and fruit farm one day a week, which I prefer since I get to eat strawberries while working, which is fantastic. If you’ve never had fresh, non-grocery store strawberries and have farms nearby, I implore you to go pick some. It’s a whole ‘nother world.

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My island home from June through August.

Spending eight hours a day in fields and with animals has definitely given me perspective on agricultural issues in our society. Even as a child starves to death every 10 seconds, modern, post-Industrial people (myself included to some extent) are by and large very disconnected from where their food comes from, and even in many instances ignorant of what it’s composed of. What the hell is Taco Bell beef anyway? (Hint: mostly not beef). Or chicken nuggets — how much further can you get from an animal’s true form than a ball of ground meat-like product deep fried and incrusted in chemically-assured deliciousness? To top it all off, these are the products many children, who have no choice in what they eat, are introduced to as examples of food. Hey, and I haven’t even gotten to my rant about non-meat food products.

Anyway, my point is, like the developed world’s disconnect from the outdoors, i.e. land without roads and big boxes with TVs in them, our desensitization and ignorance about what our food is and where it comes from has drastic consequences. In the case of the lack of immersion in wilderness, we (as a society) are less attuned to the reasons we should care about the non-anthropogenic, non-mechanically developed world, and don’t even have a conceptualization of such an ideal drawn from real world experience. The form of “nature” isn’t informed by phenomenal experience, and thus remains an abstract ideal, often even reserved for those fortunate to be educated about it, although often still lacking the essential experience. In the same way, our notions of the essence of our food are similarly poorly informed. Unless you are of have been at some time an avid food researcher or farmer, this is probably true for you. It’s time for all of us to get our hands dirty in addition to trying to stay as informed as possible. We can live without iPhones and cars, but certainly not nourishment, so it’s difficult for me to conceive how the most valuable companies in the world and the apparent nexus of modern American life hold more attention and scrutiny (although not enough in the latter respect) than the cornerstone of our survival of a civilization, and a species.

Even more deplorable than the modern man’s detachment from his food and geography is the fact that 1.4 billion people have too much food to eat (i.e. are overweight) while almost 3 billion are hungry and malnourished. The rapidly developing countries like China in addition to the industrialized societies like the U.S. threaten the food security of the people lacking enough food altogether. It’s easy to forget that even though we may have plenty to eat, a third of our fellow humans don’t have nearly enough, and our seemingly boundless consumption impacts them greatly.

Continue reading

Recently perused articles

  • A large diary farm in Indiana has been converting manure into fuel, thus “taking two million gallons of diesel off the highway each year” (NY Times). It’s sensible technologies like these, unsexy as they may be, that’ll help us become a more sustainable society.
  • The Arctic may become a great deal greener in the coming decades. With temperatures rising twice as fast near there than the rest of the world, vegetation may increase by as much as 52% by the 2050s (Reuters).   article-0-18901346000005DC-515_634x712
  • A New Yorker article looks at the direction of the environmental movement. Despite its growth in membership and funding, why hasn’t any significant legislation been passed in decades? It’s hard to believe that on

April 22, 1970, only seven months after his speech in Seattle, the teach-in, dubbed Earth Day, generated more than twelve thousand events across the country, many of them in high schools and colleges, with more than thirty-five thousand speakers. “Today” devoted ten hours of airtime to it. Congress took the day off, and two-thirds of its members spoke at Earth Day events. In all, millions of people participated. This activity was largely uncoördinated.

Such efforts lead to the passing of the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, and the creation of the EPA in the early 1970s. Can we learn lessons from the movements in the ’70s, or is the cultural pressure just not present enough to quell political inertia? Continue reading

How China’s Pollution Crisis Relates to Global Sustainability, and the Possibility of a Solution

Cancer villages. A major city’s water supply strewn with thousands of pig carcasses. These may sound like plot developments from some Hollywood environmental apocalypse thriller, but they’re real. China’s environmental problems have been front and center in the news media lately. The government actively denies most reports of environmental mayhem as air and water pollution skyrockets. China’s rapid expansion, rarely checked by government oversight (although granted government support), has resulted in a myriad of public-private enterprises, primarily in the area of industrial manufacturing, as anyone who has ever checked the “Made in” label on most any of their possessions knows. With more capital accruing, the Chinese can then themselves afford to spend money: on house and road construction and various goods of their own. When hundreds of millions of people move to the cities in the largest mass migration in history — with a population the size of the United States’ moving to cities in recent years — the construction efforts are amplified all the more, as are other associated environmental impacts.

This all comes as no surprise. What’s astounding is considering the rate at which the pollution will continue, and how the government will choose to deal with it remains anyone’s guess, although this New York Times article notes China’s new prime minister is acknowledging the pollution. And remember how in January particulate pollution in Beijing broke records, charting 755 out of a supposed maximum of 500?  As an example of how the environmental woes will only grow, forecasts say the number of passenger cars will more than triple to 400 million by 2030. Vehicles already account for almost a quarter of particulate emissions, and the rapidly expanding coal power industry takes the cake for double that. As the Chinese consumers themselves become more wealthy, they’ll start to consume their own country’s goods in greater numbers, providing hundreds of millions of new costumers for manufactured goods. 3.2 million people already die each year from air pollution; one wonders where that number will be at a decade from now.  Continue reading