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

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On Backcountry Cabins and Defining ‘Nature’

I’m an avid backpacker. I particularly enjoy the meditative aspects of solo treks, particularly into the mountains, where the challenging geography provides more opportunities for solitude and exciting adventures, and the onslaught of adrenaline and riddance of distractions nurtures an ascetic self-awareness. Most every time I venture out onto the trail, or cross-country, I’m able to construct another piece of my relationship with myself and the world around me. My most recent expedition involved a one-night stay at the backcountry Hidden Lake fire lookout in Washington’s North Cascades, built in 1931 by the U.S. Forest Service and now a backcountry destination and first-come-first-served residence thanks to the Friends of the Hidden Lake Lookout. Needless to stay, the views were stunning from atop the 6,900′ peak, and well worth the steep snowfield climb where I learned to love my ice axe (especially when glissading down the slopes).

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The lookout. (Click to enlarge any picture.)

Much as I enjoy a primitive campsite, with the reminders of civilization contained within my backpack and tent, there is some comfort in backcountry cabins, beyond the obvious shelter amenities. Long have I fixated upon homes in isolated, scenic locales, such as those featured on one of my favorite websites, Cabin Porn. They provide the best of both worlds — the human and nonhuman seemingly fused together. Up at the lookout, I came to reflect on this further: the presence of something as simple as a 10′ x 10′ box seems to quell some degree of the even entirely welcome trepidation that comes with being separated from the familiar (other humans, technology, creature comforts, etc.). Not that I would’ve minded pitching my tent on a small rock slab, but how could a small piece of civilization bring such comfort? The backcountry cabin, yurt, or other domicile allows retention of a slice of civilized comfort, even if someone is miles away from other reminders of society. Such a combination of rustic repose and rugged peaks, with the sharp contrast of several hours of highway driving fresh in my mind, prompted me to contemplate the nature of our concept of “nature”…

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Bed at the Hidden Lake lookout.

A most scenic eating area.

A most scenic eating area.

Wilderness is not where we feel the most whole. Instead, it provides a ground for our figure, illuminating the contrasts between us and our geography, or us and what the obsessors of civilization would call nothingness. And in the wilderness, we may feel a nothingness amplified, not because there is a dearth of content ostensibly outside the realm of society, but because we become aware of a nothingness within us. As we escape the trappings of our fellow man — and machine — returning to some sort of primeval form, albeit equipped with nylon pants and waterproof maps, and a lonely primeval being at that, suddenly made aware of not only the world without us (more or less) but us without the world in which we spend our time most, and frames our consciousness: the highway, office hallways, and couches we call home and the people who make them both bearable and dreaded.

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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.

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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