Jon Foley Envisions a "Third Way" for Agriculture

Saturday, October 1, 2011

It's Not Easy Being Green: Who Will Preside Over the New Cultural " Green Movement?

We've got an existential environmental problem. There is a disconnect between the perceived prosecution of the new "Green Movement" and reality. 
Let me tell you what I mean...

"Be Out There"

The New York Times ran an article in 2008 entitled " Are Americans Afraid of the Outdoors" which discusses the inroads electronic pursuits have made on outdoor leisure time and how they have increasingly drawn kids and adults inside, spending much less time communing with Nature than we did several decades ago.  Like back in the original "Earth Day" era.  Remember that?
Kids spend half as much time outdoors as they did 20 years ago, and adults don't even go outside anymore except to find the Blackberry (" it's got to be in the car, haven't been anywhere else...")
The siren lure of the Wii is a powerful draw, I've seen it in my own children. In our home we make a concerted effort to limit video games at all costs.  They seem to invade your home while you sleep.  I've never bought a video game for my kids, but somehow they just show up on the coffee table on Saturday morning.  Kind of an Invasion of the Mind Snatchers.

I am convinced that these electronic stimulation contraptions do something to a child's brain, if only to make everything else boring in comparison (i.e.; Nature) to the turbocharged stimulation they are subjected to in these seductive game scenarios. Young minds are intoxicated and sucked into a fantasy world that doesn't exist. What a revelation, no?
I predict studies will come out, if they haven't already, that demonstrate the anti-social behavior that is precipitated by video overload.  I don't merely mean violence, but actually just the "checked out" look that I see in the eyes of kids who consume a steady diet of cyber games, it's frightening.  These young video-philes are not dumb, some studies show that this video game stuff does stimulate thinking and critical analysis of events.  My beef comes in here, doesn't it stunt social interaction and the ability to relate to real people and a real natural world?  Can't say for sure just have a sinking feeling that I am right.

A National Academy of Sciences study shows that visits to National Parks are down 25% from 1987 and backpacking trips are way down not only here in the USA but in Japan and Europe as well.

The National Wildlife Federation has a campaign called "Be Out There" trying to encourage children to step away from the keyboard and get the heck outside.

Campaigns by State Depts. of Conservation to get people outdoors on billboards, in school programs, on Internet sites, etc. are rampant. USDA has the "Let's Move" campaign to combat childhood obesity. No more cheesecake immersion while spinning the joystick.  Shake off the crumbs and Let's Move!

Green Roots

Kids just don't spend entire weekends outside playing baseball, football, or "Remember the Alamo" like they used to.  Our neighborhood gang of kids was always roaming around outside far and wide doing something.  We never needed public service campaigns to get outside and soil up some laundry when we were kids.
No cell phones, no supervision, we'd just show up and wash our hands for Saturday dinner at dusk and start telling stories; "Mom,  Dad, Kevin Durkin put a penny on the railroad track, it was awesome you should have seen it, flattened to smithereens... " We didn't have the fear factor from "Stranger Danger" that kids have today, I guess with good reason, unfortunately.

I spent many a childhood hour on the banks of a backyard creek, fishing out salamanders and minnows, and other odd curiosities, like the Horsehair worm (look that one up), one of the worlds largest nematodes, a parasite of grasshoppers and other arthropods that spends part of it's life cycle swimming around in bodies of water, but I digress.

 Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians, the Golden Guide to Pond Life, among others, these were  my guides, always at my side. Still have the original copies on my bookshelf.  This backyard creek exploring was my regular, daily communion , where I learned to love and appreciate Nature.
  Only then, after many happy childhood years, too see it channelized and lined with culverts to re-mediate flooding in my suburban Washington, D.C. neighborhood.  That experience scarred me for life.  I remember sitting on my back steps with my mother crying and vowing to do everything I could when I grew up to "SAVE THE CREEKS!"  I remember how small and helpless I felt then.

I didn't grow up on a farm but I was able to do the next best thing, visit my Grandparent's rural Virginia homestead whenever I could and follow my Grandfather around planting strawberries, picking tomatoes, digging potatoes, and feeding the chickens.  My Dad also got me started in the traditional pastime of Italians, planting vegetables in your backyard, no matter how small, I was captivated.
The garden of my Great Uncle Frank Fiore in Martin's Creek, Pennsylvania was a thing to behold.  I remember wandering through it gazing up through the canopy of scarlet runner beans my nose filled with the pungent aroma of sweet basil, and feeling something I can only describe now  as Green Ecstasy.
Then I discovered that my Great, Great, Great Grandfather Alfred Harrison Dwyer had maintained some pastureland on a homestead that is now part of the Shenandoah National Park around the time of the Civil War, my imagination was stoked.  I began to see a hazy attachment to the land take shape.  Agrarian seeds were definitely planted in my psyche here.

"Get Outside and Play..."

Then there was the Boy Scouts and camping and wilderness exploring that dovetailed nicely with the early creek denizen lifestyle.  For a kid who didn't grow up on a farm I think I had a pretty good introduction to nature, the outdoors, and a taste of what it meant to grow your own food.

Time and maturity has softened my militance but I still have a soft spot for "The Environment" in my heart of hearts.  I am Green, but Green as if people mattered, that includes Homo sapiens in the landscape as well as the Allegheny red-backed salamander and the Diamondback terrapin and, yes, the Horsehair worm.
I'll never forget the infinite hours spent outside in those light, hazy, endless summer days that trailed off into an ecstatic eternal dusk. Then fleeing home famished for a mac & cheese dinner served up with a pitcher of Tang, and chocolate chip cookies with black walnuts, to cap it all off.  Black walnuts that we had de-hulled and shelled by hand, no less, now there's a Green Mess.  My mother's garden gloves were forever stained a rich dark green.
My mom would not let the couch springs imprint our behinds, "Turn that TV off and get outside and play"  I remember, was one of her daily recitations.  She had to enforce it or we would have gladly turned to Jello watching Gilligan's Island,  Green Acres and the Beverly Hillbillies until we couldn't see straight.  For her unflagging persistence in daily kicking us outside I am eternally grateful.
From my observations it seems that my childhood outdoor experience is alien to the 21st century kid at large.
Maybe now you can understand the question in my title:  Where will the grown-ups come from that will carry out and preside over the supposed new "Green Movement" that is theoretically underway?  You know the one where everyone is immersed in, enjoys, experiences, understands, loves and cares for the natural world all around us. The one that we are an intrinsic, inextricable and integral part of.  Or are we?

A World of Russels and Devolved Human Blobs?

Are you starting too see a pattern here?

*Spends little or no time in physical activity with corresponding negative health impacts.

*Spends little or no time enjoying the outdoors, whether in Yosemite or in my own backyard.

*Has little or no actual experience/interaction with the natural world.

*Possesses only a theoretical ,vicarious, simulated knowledge of the natural world.

Are these the qualifications that you would want to see on the resume of the new generation of Green Revolutionaries?

Do we have a generation of Russells, (UP) Wilderness Explorers, whose only experience with wilderness is virtual until they find themselves one day thrown to the lions.

Is the inevitable end to all this chronic inactivity the devolved blob people in another Pixar film Wall-E ( sorry, I just had to throw this one in) who are unable to do much physically except ride around on motorized lounge chairs and drink lunch from a cup?

From whence will the new warriors come to carry the Green torch?

Nature appreciation is one thing but what about agriculture? Less than 2% of us in the U.S.A. are involved in agricultural production and other developed nations are basically in the same boat. A survey from the recent Food Dialogues, sponsored by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, revealed that 72% of consumers know little or nothing about farming or ranching.  Is Green Acres the best we can do?

 The Real Green Revolution 2.0

 Well, before you despair of life and descend into a self flagellating agro-eco funk there is some good news, news that has been all but ignored by those that should have been proclaiming it from the rooftops for the last half century.   The Good News is the Real Green Revolution 2.0.  It is a continuation of the Green Revolution 1.0 that was started by Norman Borlaug and many others some 50 odd years ago.
In a nutshell, the development of dramatically higher yields per acre of the worlds major grain crops: wheat, rice, corn, and sorghum resulted in land preserved for other uses, like wildlife habitat and recreational park lands.
Scientists at Stanford University also have concluded that high yield agriculture slows global warming, have you heard about that? Why on earth not?

 This grand achievement in yields was the result of a combination of genetic improvements, advances in fertility, irrigation and pest control.  Development of improved distribution networks and overcoming cultural hurdles was also instrumental in this great leap forward.  All in all it was a stunning collaboration  between science, sociology and politics that saved probably 1 billion human lives from starvation and millions of acres of land from the plow. Wow! Why didn't I hear more about this in college or on 60 Minutes?  Didn't fit the social narrative, perhaps,
The crop yield advances made since the 1960's have saved a  land area almost the size of South America, minus Chile, from the plow.  This is, in large part, why there are still tigers in India and many other forest dwelling species in other parts of the world, endangered or otherwise.  This is an amazing story of success why aren't more people aware of this?

Matt Ridley, the Rational Optimist has a good video clip about Intensive Farming that encapsulates this phenomenon nicely.
The crop yield and resource use efficiency improvements made during Green Revolution 1.0 will continue in the Green Revolution 2.0 and must continue if we are to feed 10 billion people by 2050.  This Herculean effort will need a multitude of new Green Recruits.  According to the USDA between 2010 and 2015 the US economy alone will generate an estimated 54,000 annual openings in agriculture, food and renewable natural resources fields. 
Do you want to be Green?
I know it's not easy, but here is your opportunity!
Let's Move! Let's Get Outside! Spread the word!

More Good News in future posts.

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