Sunday, August 26, 2012

We are all stewards of the Earth

By this I refer to the meaning of stewardship as "the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care". When we think of land ownership, I believe the main responsibility is the careful management of the resources of that land. Ideally, to do everything possible to make the land richer and more productive than when you acquired it.

Sadly, this is often not how land owners, especially corporate ones, view their roles as owners. The concentrated effort is usually more on exploiting those resources for the benefit of the stockholders through increased short-term profits than in any way being good stewards. If my land becomes unprofitable over time (usually due to mismanagement) then I will simply sell it and buy another parcel that is more productive.

Not only does this view of land as an exploitable resource cause a destructive cycle of resource consumption (and unnecessary waste), but it encourages the exploitation of wilderness lands that are quickly disappearing as a consequence.

Beyond the question of private land owners being good stewards, I am continually appalled at how the rest of us treat the lands which we do not own. People still throw fast food wrappers or whole bags of half eaten food out their car windows (didn't we address this back in the 60's & 70's?). I've seen creeks and rivers around the Chicago area despoiled with all manner of discarded items from tires to cinder blocks, from mattresses and lawn chairs to old Weber grills, not to mention the ubiquitous beer bottles and cans.

Why is it so hard to realize that we are all poisoning ourselves through these careless actions? The chemicals in our garbage thrown into our water ways are leaching into our groundwater and the river ecosystems. Not only does this make our environment less beautiful (who wants to live in a garbage dump) but it ultimately affects our health and well being.

One of my favorite quotes, originally attributed to Chief Seattle but actually more recent, "The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth". As stewards of the earth, a role into which we have thrust ourselves, we have to start doing a better job. The quote continues, "All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself".

Regardless of the source of this wisdom, isn't it time we started seeing the web of life that we live in and stopped exploiting its resources, polluting it with our garbage and poisoning it with our chemicals?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Wasting the Abundance

How much food have you thrown away today? Didn't quite finish that second or third bowl of cereal and dumped it down the garbage disposal? Tossed the last two bites of that sandwich? Scraped the remains of dinner into the kitchen garbage? Did you go shopping today and clean out your refrigerator by throwing away all that food from last week that had gone bad? How about those leftovers from the restaurant three nights ago that you never ate? We all do it. I did all these things in the last week. We usually don't even think about it.

So let's stop for a second and do a little bit of that thinking. My cereal was mostly corn, wheat and sugar. All are grown, harvested and processed many miles from the store in which I purchased the cereal. Taking into account the production of the packaging of all the ingredients before they arrive at the cereal plant and all the packaging to get the cereal to my kitchen, not to mention the production of the cereal itself and we can quickly see that there are many very complicated processes involved. Each of them consumes energy which usually comes from some fossil fuel like diesel for the trucks and coal to generate the electricity.

When I pour that last bowl, eat only half of it and dump the rest, I'm also wasting some of that energy that went into getting that cereal into my bowl. It doesn't seem like much when considering a bowl of cereal. However, recent studies have indicated that in industrialized nations like the US 30 - 50% of all food produced is thrown away before it can be eaten. This means that up to 50% of the carbon emissions related to food production and transportation are causing global climate change for no benefit. I don't know how you feel, but that sounds really stupid to me.

The irony, or perhaps the underlying cause, of all this waste is that we do it because our food supply is so abundant. We grow and produce so much food in the US that we can throw away half of it and still suffer an epidemic of obesity caused mainly by eating too much (or at least too much of the wrong kinds of food). The true tragedy is not the cost of the waste or even the distasteful moral issue of so much waste in the face of so many struggling with food security or even starvation in other parts of the world. No, the tragedy is that while we are wasting this colossal abundance we are lulled into believing it will continue forever.

The belief in never ending abundance causes us as a society to be wasteful of all the limited resources that are consumed daily to produce this amazing bounty which we discard without a second thought. Our modern farming practices are heavily reliant on the consumption of water for irrigation, diesel for production and transportation, petroleum for pesticides, other fossil fuels like natural gas to produce fertilizer and the land on which to grow it all. Supply of all of these resources are beginning to be challenged and will be more so in the near future as world-wide demand for food continues to increase partly due to population increase and partly to the rest of the world wanting to eat what we do.

Before a crisis looms caused by a shortage of any of these resources upon which our farming practices rely, we need to supplement our food supply with crops grown in ways that are not reliant on these limited resources. Many organic farming practices can produce the same yield per acre with no chemical fertilizers or pesticides and a fraction of the petroleum. The problem is that all of these practices are only successful on a small scale so that more people have to practice them to support the same sized population.

We won't get there overnight, but we can each make a small contribution by being more mindful of how much food we buy, eat and throw out. We can also support local farmers who practice organic techniques which have a lower impact on the environment, our bodies and our limited resources. If we don't we may be staring into the first of many crises regarding our food production sooner than we want to admit.