Things With Feathers: Why hope?

Since it’s what came my way, I have something a little different this time. Instead of a collection of articles focused on specific positive things happening, I have two articles discussing the value of hope itself. I highly recommend reading them both in their entirety, both for their examples of victories, and for the more in-depth treatment the authors give their subjects.

One is “The Rise of Ocean Optimism,” by Elin Kelsey, which is written about the importance of sharing successes in ocean conservation – though the concepts are widely applicable. The other, Rebecca Solnit’s “Hope is an embrace of the unknown,” examines the world more broadly, and presents the concept of “hope” in a really interesting way, as a way of acting in times of uncertainty.

They share one major common point: Feeling problems are overwhelming and vast, and no solution has been come up with, creates despair and depression, states in which people feel like taking action is pointless; therefore, remembering similar efforts that have succeeded – and sharing those memories – is a vital antidote to that despair, which provides impetus (hope) to keep going and working towards the specific as-yet unachieved goals.

One of the points raised in “Ocean Optimism” is the importance of educating people about ways to improve bad situations – quite literally, sharing what has worked for people can help others solve their problems. There are many serious problems with the ocean, and scientists were spending more time publishing analyses of problems instead of sharing things that worked, so the field was perceived very strongly as pretty much “doom and gloom.” The problems aren’t imaginary, but too much focus on those without spending enough time on actual solutions, and places where harmed ecosystems are recovering, doesn’t help people keep going with further solutions:

     Those of us who work with marine issues are often reluctant to talk about the environment in hopeful terms, for fear it might be taken as saying it’s okay to continue the appalling degradation of the seas. “Don’t worry about PCBs, my friend. The ocean will heal itself!” That sort of thing. We worry that highlighting species recoveries will play into the hands of climate skeptics, or reduce political pressure for much-needed environmental reforms.

     But what we fail to take into account is the collateral damage of apocalyptic storytelling.

     Hopelessness undermines the very engagement with marine issues we seek to create. According to researchers at Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, there are limits to the amount of concerns we can deal with at one time. They call it the “finite pool of worry.” Overburdening people’s capacity for worry with too much doom and gloom leads to emotional numbing. When we believe our actions are too small to make a difference, we tend to behave in ways that create the conditions in which those expectations are realized. By bombarding people with bad news about the oceans at scales that feel too large to surmount, we cause them to downplay, tune out, or shut down. Hopelessness is a self-fulfilling prophecy. [emphasis added]

Kelsey also points out that another tactic often brought up – scaring people into doing the right thing – isn’t always appropriate, because “fearmongering isn’t the answer for broad, complex, emotion-laden, societal-level issues,” like environmentalism. Talking about what has been seen to work, showing places where there are solutions, is an alternative to that.

Solnit has this to say about focusing on victories and other memories of the past:

     Some activists are afraid that if we acknowledge victory, people will give up the struggle. I have long been more afraid that people will give up and go home or never get started in the first place if they think no victory is possible or fail to recognise the victories already achieved. … A victory is a milestone on the road, evidence that sometimes we win and encouragement to keep going, not to stop.

     Most of us would say, if asked, that we live in a capitalist society, but vast amounts of how we live our everyday lives – our interactions with and commitments to family lives, friendships, avocations, membership in social, spiritual and political organisations – are in essence noncapitalist or even anticapitalist, made up of things we do for free, out of love and on principle.”

     …noncapitalist ways of doing things are much older than free-market economic arrangements. Activists often speak as though the solutions we need have not yet been launched or invented, as though we are starting from scratch, when often the real goal is to amplify the power and reach of existing options. What we dream of is already present in the world.”

     …though hope is about the future, grounds for hope lie in the records and recollections of the past. We can tell of a past that was nothing but defeats, cruelties and injustices, or of a past that was some lovely golden age now irretrievably lost, or we can tell a more complicated and accurate story, one that has room for the best and worst, for atrocities and liberations, for grief and jubilation. A memory commensurate to the complexity of the past and the whole cast of participants, a memory that includes our power, produces that forward-directed energy called hope.

She also spends several paragraphs discussing how what is remembered affects how we feel about things now. “Forgetting” the past can create despair and depression and inaction, because all recollections of victories are ignored, so there is only the (awful) “now,” and if this is how it has “always been,” how can things be different in the future?

     The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.

One of the things I liked best was the way Solnit defined hope  – a way of acting in times of uncertainty.

Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. — Rebecca Solnit

She mentions several historical examples of sudden change happening after a lot of groundwork had been laid. No one knew what specific trigger point would occur, or when, or that the actions that did occur would end up setting off much larger-scale reactions. And, had the efforts of so many people, and desires for change, not already been in place, the precipitating incidents could not have had the same results. What I take from this is that, even if no specific timeline can be predicted for work to pay off, it is vital to keep doing it, and to be connected with others, to spread the ideas and desires for change to happen, so that when that unpredictable but necessary catalytic moment comes and creates an opening, all that pent-up energy can move.

Another important made by Kelsey is that emotions are contagious – and hope spreads faster on social media than pessimism, which is what you get from news sources. None of this is a call to stop talking about the problems facing the world – if you don’t know something is causing harm, you not only can’t help stop it, you may end up inadvertently perpetuating it – but to not focus solely on the harms. By sharing our stories of past victories, and providing reminders that things have changed, they can change, and they will change, we support each other in working towards our next victories.

And the Bastard grant us . . . in our direst need, the smallest gifts: the nail of the horseshoe, the pin of the axle, the feather at the pivot point, the pebble at the mountain’s peak, the kiss in despair, the one right word. In darkness, understanding. — Lois McMaster Bujold (in Paladin of Souls)

Things with Feathers: Fewer fossil fuel projects; more birds

In good news for climate and other environmental concerns, the fossil fuel industry has been having a tough time getting projects permitted:

Oregon LNG cancels plan for Warrenton terminal:

The company behind a proposed liquefied natural gas export terminal at the mouth of the Columbia River has abandoned the project, marking the death of Oregon’s second such project in a matter of weeks.

…The news comes weeks after a city hearings officer rejected key permits for the project and after years of fervent opposition both locally and statewide. Concerns over the project’s potential to harm Warrenton’s fishing industry and environment had sparked protests at local meetings on the project and attracted attention from conservation groups.

…The project encountered another roadblock this spring, when a city hearings officer denied land use applications after finding the terminal could harm habitat for protected salmon and affect public fishing access.

The “second such project” referenced is the Jordan Cove LNG terminal, which had its plans rejected by federal regulators, who said “applicants had not demonstrated any need for the facility.”

Regulators said they were required to balance the need for any project against any adverse impacts it would have on landowners or the environment. The need for Jordan Cove was based entirely on demand for natural gas from customers in Asia, and with those markets in upheaval, Jordan Cove’s backers have yet to demonstrate that the demand exists.

…Meanwhile, the companies had been unable to negotiate easements with more than 90 percent of 630 landowners along the 232-mile pipeline route, and would have required the widespread use of eminent domain to secure the necessary rights of way. The commissioners noted the landowners’ concerns with land devaluation, loss of revenue and harm to business operations, including timber, agriculture and oyster harvesting.

This project has been opposed since 2004.

Very recently, up in Washington, the Cherry Point coal export terminal’s permit has been rejected by the US Army Corps of Engineers; this permit rejection probably means the end of the project entirely. The decision is noteworthy because it came not from an environmental impact assessment, but because of the terminal’s projected impact on the Lummi Nation’s treaty rights.

The Corps ruled the project would impact the treaty-protected fishing rights of Lummi Nation based on the fact that the proposed trestle and associated wharf would take up 144 acres over water.

“The Corps may not permit a project that abrogates treaty rights,” said Col. John Buck, commander of the Corps’ Seattle District.

This doesn’t fall under “permit denied,” but it’s too good to omit. Royal Dutch Shell has relinquished all its leases in the Chukchi Sea except one (for the site it drilled an exploratory well last year), and is reevaluating its leases in the Beaufort Sea.

After Shell announced it was suspending exploration, the Interior Department said it would not extend Shell leases when they expired in 2020. Shell initially said lease terms should be extended. By relinquishing the leases, the company avoids millions in annual payments.

A drilling opponent, Oceana, filed a freedom of information request and learned leases had been formally relinquished by Shell, ConocoPhillips, Eni and Iona Energy. The environmental group announced its findings Monday night and applauded the decision.

“Hopefully, today marks the end of the ecologically and economically risky push to drill in the Arctic Ocean,” said Mike LeVine, an attorney with the group.

Moving on to another hemisphere and topic, in cute bird news, the kakapo population in New Zealand had a particular good year in the baby department, with a 36 new babies surviving breeding season, bringing the total population of this critically endangered species up to 125, and providing some of the cutest parent-and-baby pictures on the internet.

“It’s the most successful breeding season since we started in 1995 and I think that’s cause for international celebration,” Conservation Minister Maggie Barry told AFP.

Kakapo parent and chick, from eartharchives.org
Kakapo parent and chick, from eartharchives.org

 

Things with Feathers: “Freedom farming” and Lazarus species

I found a couple articles recently about farmers taking a non-dominating approach to growing crops. Neither article mentioned terms like permaculture or biodynamic farming; these folks are coming from (apparently) different perspectives, or at least not using that terminology to describe their farming practices.

What they have in common is a desire to grow crops in a manner that takes their local ecosystem into consideration, and work within its constraints to deal with weeds, insects, and – in one case – breed crops best suited for the local ecosystem.

One article, Meet This Third-Generation Farmer Who Converted His 1,400 Acres to Growing Organic Food, is about a farming family who switched to organic production primarily for financial reasons, despite experts saying this wasn’t a good idea.

Klaas used to grow monolithic fields of corn. He used to spray. For 20 years, he applied all the “right” chemicals. He put them on properly. He carefully recorded the results. Then in 2000 he and Mary-Howell decided to stop; they decided to go completely organic all at once.

“We weren’t making a good living on our farm,” Klaas said. “Sad to say but quite often my profit was entirely in subsidy money that I was getting. I would plan a crop of corn knowing that it was not likely to be profitable but we were going to get enough subsidy to make up the difference.”

Klaas and Mary-Howell had been toying with organic practices on a few test acres for a few years, intending to gradually convert a little more land each year. Then one day they saw an ad in the newspaper offering $6 a bushel for organic wheat, twice the conventional rate.

They found there were local markets for most crops they wanted to grow, but agriculture experts told them that going organic didn’t make sense for a farm their size. However, Klaas had another reason besides the finances to want to switch: after years of using herbicides, he’d had a terrible reaction, and didn’t want to get sick again, or ask anyone else to on his behalf.

In the course of learning how to grow organically,

. . . Klaas came across a quote by a German agricultural researcher that completely stumped him but completely changed his way of thinking:

Cultural practices form the basis of all weed control. Various other means should be regarded as auxiliary only. — Bernard Rademacher

“Until then, I was used to thinking that whenever you have a problem you react to it,” Klaas admitted. He was used to asking the conventional question: how do I control this? “Well this quote turned that thinking around,” he said. “It asked: What caused this problem? Why is this weed here? And once you start thinking like this, you can derive a holistic plan for what you’re going to do about it.”

The answer was not to fight against the weeds but to understand them. Completely and fully, within the context of everything else around them.

The article describes the natural succession of plants on a plot that has been taken out of agricultural production – how different species come in after others have first prepared the way. So Klaas farms in a way that takes that process into consideration. He grows a variety of crops, and grows them in rotation. Over several years, this practice meant he saw a pest plant become smaller, less and less of a problem, and then get attacked by disease and insects while nothing else was affected. (His neighbors continued to have problems with the same plant.)

“Everything that grows in soil changes the soil,” Klaas said. “It makes the soil the best environment for something else.”

. . .

“The weed that bothered us the most was velvet leaf,” he said. “It seemed unstoppable. But within six years of changing our farm, our rotations and our inputs, velvet leaf started getting smaller and smaller every year. And we started seeing a disease on it.” The velvet leaf was being attacked by fungus and virus and insect. “And yet the crop wasn’t being affected.”

After 15 years, he feels they are “only getting started as an organic farm,” and still have a great deal to learn, including what crops are the right rotation, and how to best bring in nutrients to make up for what is removed when the harvest is sold.

This is the 10,000-year old problem of agriculture that every farmer simultaneously contributes to and contends with: farming changes the environment. It changes the soil. Period. As long as we’re committed to domesticating and growing the food we eat, we’re also committed to altering the very earth that provides it.

This is why we need to be extremely thoughtful about how we feed ourselves. Because the question we automatically ask is: How do we reduce human impact on the Earth? But when it comes to farming, the better question might be: How do we produce the most constructive and sustainable human impact possible?

In The Rise, Fall, And Almost Rise Of The Caviar Of Cantaloupe, we are introduced to Ken Taylor, a farmer and (now retired) chemistry professor, who practices a low-intervention method of farming, and was asked to see if he could bring back the “Montreal melon” from virtual extinction. The fruit was extremely popular in the late 1800s and early 20th century, but urbanization had a detrimental impact on some of the areas it was grown, and the plant’s needs weren’t a good fit for industrialization:

It wasn’t an easy melon. It required a fair amount of coddling: watering, syringing, ventilating, lifting with a flat stone or shingle to prevent cracking or rot, and turning every few days to ensure uniformity of shape, color, netting, and ripening.

They also didn’t transport well over long distances, and by the mid-1950s, it was no longer offered in Burpee’s widely-sold seed catalogs, the first catalog in which they’d been sold after Burpee’s founder encountered them in 1880.

After a food journalist named Barry Lazar learned about the melons and wrote about them in the Montreal Gazette in 1991, another reporter for the Gazette, Mark Abley, became intrigued.

He wondered how such a popular fruit could have disappeared so completely.

Abley had researched endangered species before. He knew about a stick insect, long thought to be extinct, that had been found clinging to a rock on an island in the South Pacific; a fish that had been known only from its fossil record until 1938, when it was dredged up in the Indian Ocean by an angler; and a bird that was thought to have vanished from Bermuda shortly after British sailors arrived in the 1600s but was rediscovered in 1951 and is now the country’s national bird. “There’s even a particular name for this,” he says. “Lazarus species.”

He thought it was possible someone might have saved some seeds, and if they had, he had an idea who in Montreal might be able to bring the melon back: Ken Taylor, who has a serious interest in crop diversity, and growing crops suited for the local environment.

Though Taylor took on farming simply because he wanted to grow his own food, it has evolved into a mission. He sells seeds, seedlings, and rootstock on the Green Barn Farm website, urging growers to “protect our Canadian genetic heritage.”

. . .

Working with perennial plants, which require minimal upkeep and don’t need to be replanted every year, he has bred and selected varieties of fruits, nuts, and berries that resist the brutal Canadian winters. And he thinks other Canadian farmers ought to be doing the same.

“Planting seeds and pounding the soil and annually preparing it and fertilizing it and watering it and fighting whatever short-term disease you may have so that you can finish everything up in three months is not a very earth-friendly or sustainable food production system,” says Taylor. “But that’s basically all we do in Canada.”

Part of the problem, according to Taylor, is that the country’s agricultural system is designed for exports, not for local markets. In 2012, Canada became the world’s fifth-largest agricultural exporter — and spent $32.3 billion bringing in agricultural and agri-food items from 190 other countries.

“We’re a country of agriculture, but we can’t feed ourselves,” Taylor says. “That’s pathetic.”

The only hope for food security, according to Taylor, is to disrupt the monoculture of modern farming through small-scale diversity. Diversity is important in farming, because planting only one crop, or one variety of a crop, leaves it vulnerable to disease.

His approach, which he calls “freedom farming,” is a very, very low-human-intervention approach, letting the natural systems direct what grows and what does not.

His philosophy is simple: Tread lightly. Let the land do what it wants and outsmart any pests, animals, or diseases that might threaten the yield. He doesn’t try to make his land conform to his desires; he wants to see what the land desires, what will thrive on it. That means interfering with it as little as possible: no effortful weeding, no spraying. No watering, even. If a crop doesn’t grow, well, then, perhaps it shouldn’t. Weeds are not the enemy. They bring rich nutrients to the ground, and they’re useful near vine crops to prevent crows from having a place to land near his fruit.

Freedom farming, he says, is “the ultimate opposite of control.” He’ll do small things — like use plastic mulch to increase the heat when his vine crops are young, personally squash worms that are eating his leaves, or begin his crops indoors if the weather is too cold. But mainly he sees his role as introducing new genetics.

He doesn’t mean “introducing new genetics” in the Monsanto sense of altering an organism’s DNA and creating a new species of tomato or carrot. He means bringing in or crossing existing species with the larger goal of increasing biodiversity and food security. “I aid and abet some of the natural selection that would go on by bringing in new genetics all the time from all over the world. And if nature doesn’t want it there, it doesn’t grow.”

His efforts to get the Montreal melon back have met with mixed success. He did successfully grow it some years, and the seeds are back in circulation among multiple sources, but after enough frustration with it, he stopped working with it to focus on crops that are better suited to the land. Lack of pollinators has been one problem; most of the farmland in the area holds conventional crops that are sprayed. Problems with rain and fungal infection also prevented the melons from growing well.

He knew what he could have done for a better outcome. “I would have had to put a row cover on,” he said. “I would have had to give it some sort of seaweed coating or some intervention of some kind. I have some kale and clay there. I could have sprayed that on, maybe beat back the fungus a bit.” But he didn’t want to do it. He’s a freedom farmer.

“You know, why bang your head against nature? The reason the Montreal melon died out is not just because it’s big and it’s hard to grow. The climate has changed. And I’m sure the climate was changing back 60-70 years ago as well and caused a lot of people to say, ‘The hell, I can grow an easier melon!’ That cantaloupe melon that everybody buys that’s salmon-color flesh? You throw a seed in, and it’ll grow.”

Taylor didn’t come out and say it, but it was obvious what he was thinking: Perhaps the Montreal melon no longer belongs in Montreal.

While the melon may no longer be happy growing in its place of origin, he does consider it a success, as an achievement of one of his primary goals: to increase genetic diversity among crops.

And remember the list of other “Lazarus species” mentioned? This article came my way today, and I almost cried reading it: Six-Legged Giant Finds Secret Hideaway, Hides For 80 Years

That’s the stick insect, “long thought to be extinct, that had been found clinging to a rock on an island in the South Pacific,” that one of the reporters knew about. It’s known as a “tree lobster” (it’s very large for an insect) or the “Lord Howe stick insect,” presumed extinct since 1960 and not sighted since 1920. The insect was named for the only place it was known to exist, “Lord Howe Island.” Rats landed in 1918 after leaving a ship that ran aground, and hunted the insects to extinction. Some people who’d climbed the small, very very steep island called Ball’s Pyramid several miles south reported seeing stick insect corpses in the 1960s, but that was apparently it for the species. Since stick insects are nocturnal, no one felt strongly inclined to go look, because that would require climbing the very very steep mountain in the dark, and so the insect was classified as extinct.

But in 2001, two Australian scientists decided to go looking. They found fresh droppings of some large insect on one bush, went back in the dark, and found a small population of the long-unseen Lord Howe stick insect. A more extensive search later indicated that small population was it for the entire island.

After years of meetings and studies, government officials agreed that a very small number of the insects could be removed from Ball’s Pyramid, to see if they could be bred in captivity. Some of the removed insects died, and after another near-death, a population in the hundreds is established – in captivity.

Whether or not they can ever be reintroduced to their original home is unknown – the rats that wiped out the population on Lord Howe Island have continued to breed and inhabit that place, and the human inhabitants would have to agree to any plan to kill all the rats and bring back the very large insects. The stick insects are harmless, but you know, lots of humans find insects, especially very large insects, kind of creepy. I think they’re pretty adorable, and they have some pair-bonding behavior (unusual for insects) that might help others find them somewhat more charming than the average crawly.

At any rate, where’s there’s life, there’s hope.