Can GMOs help feed the world?

SUBHEAD: Not if activists succeed in making the genetic modification of food politically unsustainable.

By Madeline Ostrander on 19 August 2014 for The Nation -

Image above: Illustration by Tim Robinson from original article.

[IB Editor's note: The real question is; Should we be planning feeding on 9.5 billion people in the near term future? it is more important that conventional (GMO-fertilized-pesticide sprayed) agriculture embrace organic farming than organic farmers embrace GMO crops] 

Eduardo Blumwald’s genetically modified plants don’t look much like “Frankenfood.” Filling four modest greenhouses in a concrete lot behind Blumwald’s laboratory at the University of California, Davis, the tiny seedlings, spiky grasses, alfalfa, and peanut and rice plants in plastic terracotta-colored pots look exactly like the ordinary varieties from which he and his fellow researchers created them. Blumwald’s lab lies just ten miles from Monsanto’s 90,000-square-foot vegetable seed building, a glassy edifice larger than the hangar for a 747.

The Monsanto facility is one of the largest centers in the world for plant breeding and genetic engineering. But in the fourteen years that Blumwald, a professor of cell biology, has worked here studying the DNA of crop plants, he has hardly ever spoken to anyone from Monsanto.

Blue-eyed and round-faced, with a lilting Argentinian accent, Blumwald grows exasperated when he talks about the so-called “Big Ag” companies, which he says have been arrogant in dealing with the public, contributing to a distrust of biotech research. But he also doesn’t appreciate the activists who’ve been challenging not only the Monsantos of the world but the entire field of genetic engineering.

“You want to penalize the multinationals; I have no problem with that,” he tells me in his office at the university’s plant biology building. “But because of your political stance against multinationals, you are going to condemn maybe the only viable solution we have for our future? It’s wrong—absolutely wrong.”

Blumwald means the hot future that we expect by 2050—when a world population of 9.5 billion people will scramble to put food on the table, while at least thirty-seven separate countries face extreme water crises. Blumwald thinks that part of the answer is to genetically engineer crops that can better withstand drought, and so he and his researchers are scouring the world for varieties of fruits, vegetables and some basic staples—rice, millet, wheat, maize—that grow well without much water.

Then, using a device called a “gene gun,” which inserts DNA on microscopic gold particles, or a soil bacterium capable of changing plant genes, they alter or silence parts of the plant’s genome, adjusting how and when the plant makes the hormones that let it know when to grow and when to wither. The researchers say the methods are more precise and much faster than developing new plant varieties by conventional breeding, which can take decades.

When I tour the rows of rice and peanuts with one of Blumwald’s assistants, a postdoctoral researcher from Madrid, the air in the greenhouse is soupy. About two dozen researchers work in Blumwald’s lab, many of them from hot parts of the world with swelling populations, including Brazil, China and the United Arab Emirates. In the greenhouse, the researchers force the rice to cope with heat and deprive it of water just as it’s about to set seed.

So far, the genetically altered rice is outperforming the natural kind—given less moisture, the non-engineered rice browns and wilts, but the new plant survives. Blumwald’s goal is to create crops that won’t keel over as quickly when things get hot, dry and stressful—plants that will improve the odds that a farmer can produce food even in a drought.

In about forty years, relentless dry spells may be more frequent across the Southwest, say climate scientists, and California may have more dry years like this one, in which a drought has crippled the agricultural sector. But the state, one of the most fiercely contested battlegrounds in a worldwide fight over the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), isn’t the most inviting home for research like Blumwald’s.

Since the 1980s, activists here have run a series of campaigns to require the labeling of GM products and an outright ban on GMO cultivation. Blumwald says the controversy over GMOs has made it more difficult to pursue his research and obtain funding.

And even if his GM plants could be an important part of the solution to climate change, they may never make their way into the hands of commercial farmers. Who will invest in his plants, test them in the field and market them if they attract boycotts, protests and lawsuits that make business difficult and consumers skittish?

Many biotech researchers and agronomists argue that a combination of bad will generated by Big Ag and misdirected public outrage is stifling important technological advances in agriculture—innovations that could help prevent famine, fight crop diseases and cope with climate change. But countless activists disagree. The Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit agricultural watchdog group, says genetic engineering will never deliver on promises to feed a growing population and isn’t a trustworthy technology.

“The dirty secret of the biotech industry is, after thirty years, they haven’t done anything for consumers,” said Andrew Kimbrell, the founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety, in a speech at a national heirloom-seed fair in Santa Rosa, California. “No better taste, no more nutrition, zero benefits,” and a number of “potential risks.”

Over the past several years, the political fight over GMOs has become supercharged, and much of the controversy has been driven by a distrust of big business—and of any of the novel biotechnologies it might produce.

“The same corporations that brought us DDT and Agent Orange now want to deny us our right to know what’s in our food,” argued California Right to Know during a 2012 campaign that brought together a coalition of organic farmers, environmental organizations, grassroots groups like Moms Advocating Sustainability, and companies like Clif Bar and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps.

Two years ago, this coalition attempted to pass a statewide referendum that would have required the labeling of food containing GMOs. The anti-GMO activists were vastly outspent: Monsanto alone invested $8 million in efforts to defeat the measure. But the pro-labeling campaign helped launch a movement.

This year alone, a series of similar initiatives have been proposed in twenty states, according to the Center for Food Safety; this past April, Vermont became the first state to pass a GMO labeling law. The Grocery Manufacturers Association and several other trade groups have filed a lawsuit to overturn it.

The California campaign’s messages were a jab at Monsanto, in part. Since the 1940s, the company has been manufacturing and selling chemicals, including DDT, the now-banned herbicide that contributed to the near-extinction of bald eagles in the twentieth century. In the 1960s, the company distributed a brochure mocking Rachel Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring, the book that first brought widespread public attention to the dangers of pesticides and launched the modern environmental movement.

Around the same time, Monsanto was producing Agent Orange, the chemical weapon used to strip vegetation in Vietnam war zones—and later linked to birth defects and cancers there and in the United States.

In 1997, Monsanto partly reinvented itself, transferring most of its chemical business to a company called Pharmacia, which later became part of Pfizer. Today, the only chemicals that Monsanto produces are agricultural, including Roundup, an herbicide that the company invented in 1970.

It has marketed genetically modified seed since the 1990s; its premier products, among the most common GM crops on the market, are “Roundup Ready”—varieties of soybeans, corn, alfalfa, cotton, canola and sugar beets whose DNA has been modified to keep them from dying when doused with Roundup. In the big grain-growing regions of the United States, such as the Midwest, Roundup Ready is the industry standard. As a result, Roundup, which also goes by the chemical name glyphosate, is the most commonly used herbicide in the country.

Because the DNA of Monsanto’s GM plants is patented, the company has enormous control over the US food system. It has brought 145 suits against American farmers for patent infringement—i.e., for intentionally or, according to at least one farmer, accidentally (since grain DNA travels along with pollen in the wind) growing Monsanto’s GM varieties without paying for them.

The explosion of the Roundup Ready market may have environmental upsides. One biotech researcher I spoke with noted that the use of Roundup Ready seed has reduced reliance on even more toxic agricultural chemicals, and US Department of Agriculture data concur.

Roundup is considered more benign than many herbicides: it tends not to linger in the soil and is sometimes used even in places like nature preserves to beat back aggressive weeds. But few chemicals intended to poison plants or pests are entirely harm-free, and new research indicates that Roundup could be more damaging than previously thought: it may contribute to miscarriages and interfere with fetal development.

And around the country, weeds that are resistant to Roundup are proliferating. Dow Agrosciences, a division of Dow Chemical and another major player in agribusiness, is about to release a new generation of genetically modified crops that tolerate a more powerful and persistent herbicide—2,4-D, a potential neurotoxin.

According to Robert Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer and executive vice president, his company has been studying the impacts of climate change since 2006. But it has created only one line of GM plants designed to deal with environmental stress—a type of corn called DroughtGard.

Like Blumwald’s plants, DroughtGard doesn’t die back as quickly when the weather is dry, though the mechanism driving this trait is different: it relies on inserting bacterial DNA into the plant. In field trials in the Great Plains, DroughtGard performed modestly better than other varieties of corn. Monsanto has now made it available commercially to farmers, and China has approved the seed for import.

But even if such technologies prove useful in mitigating the impacts of climate change, Monsanto’s tarnished history, heavy-handed dealings with the public, lawsuits, and sheer size and might have made it a favorite villain. To a certain segment of the public, everything that Monsanto does is suspect, and genetic engineering looks like a strategy for pushing the company’s brand of herbicides and manipulating the food economy—not a way to a feed a world in crisis.

It can be easy to forget that genetic engineering has an existence and a history beyond Big Ag. Monsanto’s website credits Robert Fraley, then a researcher for the company, with producing the first GM plant in 1982, but there were at least three other institutions working simultaneously—two universities in the United States and one in Belgium—to grow the first plants with spliced genes that year.

In the decades since, scores of university researchers, small research and development ventures and even a few nonprofits have used genetic engineering to try to stop diseases from decimating citrus plants, create mustard plants that can clean up toxins from mining and industrial sites, and grow food that can better survive in heat, drought, flooding, freezing and other extreme weather conditions that may get worse in the next several decades.

But almost none of these plants have ever made it beyond a field-testing stage. As of 2010, though 260 genetically engineered traits have been tested in seventy-seven different “specialty crops” (foods that are less profitable and produced on a smaller scale than field corn, cotton, soy, wheat and rice), just four varieties—including insecticide-resistant sweet corn, disease-resistant papaya and squash, and an ornamental purple carnation—are on the market, according to a review by Jamie Miller and Kent Bradford, researchers with the Seed Biotechnology Center at UC Davis.

That’s nothing near the scope of innovation one would need to confront a problem as vast as climate change or famine.

When I spoke with Bradford, he blamed anti-GMO activists, in part, for making R&D difficult: “Those groups have driven all of the biotechnology work into the companies they hate,” he said. “They’ve made it impossible for anybody else by raising a stink. Even if the regulatory bars don’t seem so high, [activist groups] will sue.” Only big companies like Monsanto can afford the legal and regulatory costs to test GM varieties and bring them to market, Bradford argues.

Neither biotech researchers nor GMO opponents think the current regulatory process is working well. Anti-GMO groups insist that the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process is too opaque and leaves GMO testing in the hands of food companies. Biotech researchers counter that, in practice, the FDA insists on exhaustive and expensive testing far beyond what has been required for any other kind of food crop, even though years of research suggest that the technology of genetic engineering is safe.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, for example, has announced that “foods containing ingredients from [GM] crops pose no greater risk than the same foods made from crops modified by conventional plant breeding.” Bradford and others insist that it doesn’t make scientific sense to single out GM crops for special testing when other, far less precise methods of crop development—including blasting plants with radiation—aren’t subject to such rigorous scrutiny.

The high cost of GMO field-testing may explain why the only genetically modified crops that have made it to market are, in the words of environmental scientist Jonathan Foley, “very disappointing” and “come with some big problems.”

“GMO efforts may have started off with good intentions to improve food security,” Foley wrote in a column in the science magazine Ensia in February, “but they ended up in crops that were better at improving profits.”

Whether Blumwald’s plants—or the hundreds of other GM crops designed to be disease- or climate-change-resistant or otherwise useful in feeding the world—ever make it to farm fields may depend a lot on whether food activists, the public and policy-makers can be persuaded that the technology is able to produce worthwhile results.

The heart of one GMO battle is roughly fifty miles west of Blumwald’s lab, in Sonoma County—a land of wineries, towering redwood groves poised at the edge of rocky coastal cliffs, and some of the most innovative organic agriculture in the country.

Much of the opposition to GMOs here has come from organic farmers, partly out of fear that their crops will be tainted by cross-pollination by GM varieties. Under organic certification rules, farmers aren’t allowed to grow GMOs, and their customers often refuse to eat GM food.

In March 2004, Mendocino County, just north of Sonoma, became the first jurisdiction in the nation to pass a law regulating GM plants, making it illegal to “propagate, cultivate, raise, or grow” them, in order to stop what it called “genetic pollution”; Marin County, to the south, passed a similar ordinance the following November. A grassroots group in Sonoma County is now actively pushing for a countywide ban on GMOs.

Here, on a plot of forest in the tiny unincorporated town of Occidental, several longtime environmental activists run a center for sustainable agriculture research in a cluster of yurts and wood cabins that form an intentional community called the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC). Its leader, Dave Henson, co-founded Californians for GE-Free Agriculture, a coalition that ran campaigns against GMOs between 2002 and 2008. But when I asked him how he felt about genetic engineering, his answer surprised me.

“If this is public research at a university, I think we will see some really interesting potential solutions with recombinant DNA that could show all kinds of benefits in health and agriculture and other things,” he said. “So baby and bathwater are separate.” Henson added that he’s even guest-lectured to classrooms of biotechnology graduate students at UC Berkeley.

When I described Blumwald’s research, however, Henson was skeptical. “The biotech solution is to change out one variety of one crop with another single variety that’s somehow more adapted by genetic engineering,” he said, while the approach to climate change, drought and other related issues “should be about the whole farm system.”

And that’s the major area of disagreement between food activists and the farm industry: people like Henson believe the entire system of modern agriculture needs a radical makeover to rely less on fossil fuels, irrigation, and the chemical fertilizers and weed killers that are fouling water sources from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi. Tweaking a gene won’t fix all that, Henson argues: “The solution has got to be a return to a more sustainable, soil-focused agriculture.”

Five years ago, Henson, OAEC, and several other groups and individuals involved with the GE-Free coalition partnered with organic and family farmers to form a new organization, the California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN). Their intent was to involve farmers in California’s new climate-change law, the most comprehensive policy on global warming in the country.

At the time, the group was also responding to Monsanto. “It was informed by the advertising campaign that Monsanto was doing…around its development of GMO crops that they claimed would respond to a number of [environmental] issues,” says Renata Brillinger, who now heads the group.

In 2008 and 2009, Monsanto placed ads in publications like The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly and on the radio program Marketplace arguing that its biotech seeds would be necessary to feed the world’s burgeoning population. “We saw a need for other solutions,” Brillinger adds.

Today, CalCAN has no formal position on GMOs, but simply says that it wants, in Brillinger’s words, “shovel-ready” solutions to deal with the drought right now. Most of these are about managing soil. Rich, organic soil—the kind that can be developed by using manure and compost more and tilling less—holds water better than poor soil. In a drought, plants grown in rich soil are less thirsty; in a deluge, such soil absorbs and slows the flow of water, thereby decreasing flooding and erosion.

Organic matter is also high in carbon, and storing it in the soil keeps it out of the atmosphere, helping to address the problem of climate change itself. CalCAN has focused on statewide policy, including efforts to wring funding from the California budget to promote soil- and water-conservation practices and climate-change strategies for farmers. To Brillinger, GMO research looks costly and difficult; managing the soil is immediate, cheap and much easier.
Down the road, in Sebastapol, I found a small organic farm that made this convincing. Paul Kaiser drove up to meet me in front of his barn in a small green tractor, then walked me through the densely planted rows spanning his two acres of crop fields, filled with roughly 150 varieties of vegetables.

“We earn over $100,000 per crop acre per year,” he says. (By contrast, the average revenue from an acre of California cabbages or cucumbers in 2012 was about $6,000 to $8,000, according to the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture.) Kaiser credits his soil-management practices for his financial success.

Before farming, he worked in agroforestry, restoring fields in the tropics that were so overgrazed they could barely grow grass. To Kaiser, the question of engineering any single plant is unimportant compared with a larger picture involving soil, water, bees, and the various other insects and birds that can thrive on an organic farm and provide natural pest control. Kaiser supports the ban in Sonoma County: “Unless we can prove that a GMO crop is fully safe and beneficial to everything that it touches—the pollinators, the soil it’s grown in, the watershed and our body—we shouldn’t be using it,” he says.

At its core, nothing about the science of gene splicing precludes good soil management and other sustainable practices. Pamela Ronald, a UC Davis plant pathology professor, and her husband Raoul Adamchak, a farmer and former board president of the group California Certified Organic Farmers, insist that it’s not only possible but necessary to combine techniques like soil conservation with genetic engineering.

They’ve also written a book on the subject called Tomorrow’s Table.

Ronald argues that those who object to GMOs are focused on the wrong questions: “It would make a lot more sense to evaluate all crops and all farming practices based on whether they are sustainable, not on the process of developing the seed. We know that the process itself is no more risky than any other kind of genetic process.” GM crops will never be a silver bullet, she adds, and we can’t confront a food crisis without also dealing with the other shortcomings of large-scale agriculture.

Even so, genetic modification does offer help, and in a crisis, even a small fix can be worth a lot. Ronald and her colleague, David MacKill, used a combination of genetic engineering and plant breeding to create a variety of rice that can withstand the flooding that has inundated much of Bangladesh and India and devastated the rice fields, a disaster made worse by climate change. Last year, the rice was grown by 4 million farmers.

Ronald doesn’t point fingers at any one party for the public relations difficulties faced by biotech researchers. But she does note that the solution to a world food crisis won’t emerge only in the lab: “There seems to be a communication gap between organic and conventional farmers, as well as between consumers and scientists. It is time to close that gap,” she and Adamchak conclude in Tomorrow’s Table. “Science and good farming alone will not be sufficient.”

See also:
Ea O Ka Aina: Breaking Free from Factory Farms 3/30/11
Madeline Ostrander interview with farmer Joe Salatin


America's Future in the Mirror

SUBHEAD: There is still time to take another look in the mirror. Make your decisions based on what you see when you do.

By Raul Illargi Meijer on 17 August 2014 for Automatic Earth -

Image above: Shot by Roshenk in mirror on October 28th, 2012. From (

If Americans were less prone to self-deceit, they would have long since realized that the American Dream is over, for good, and that continuing to chase it is the worst of the few remaining options they get to choose between.

They could then look at themselves in the mirror and see their future.

As things are, however, the future is creeping up on them in small, slow and silent steps, until one day it will simply be there, no longer deniable or avoidable, and it will find them woefully unprepared.
This is not true only for Americans, the entire formerly rich world will undergo the same transformation. But it will be very pronounced stateside.

It’s impossible to follow events in Ferguson, Missouri and not recognize that there are thousands of – potential – Fergusons in-waiting spread across the USA. You don’t have to be particularly clever to recognize the patterns.

Segregation by race – a.k.a. racism – has never left the country, even though the courage of true American heroes like Martin Luther King and Muhammad Ali changed many things for the better.
Segregation by race has always remained inevitably linked to segregation by wealth and income. As a hugely disproportionate number of black kids continue to be incarcerated under a prison system that locks away more citizens than in any other country.

You could be forgiven for thinking that America went looking for trouble. And is now finding it. Like so many things, that trouble doesn’t stand out or float to the top in times of plenty. But when those times are over, trouble is the only thing remaining.

As long as the illusion of the American Dream, and the illusion of economic growth, can be kept alive, people will be inclined to take a lot of things for granted. When their eyes open and these illusions are shattered, matters can turn on a dime.

Bloomberg provides some of the background to Ferguson and all those other American communities. What’s happening in Ferguson shouldn’t come as a surprise, what’s surprising is that it’s not much more widespread yet.

• “We’ve passed this tipping point and there are now more poor people in the suburbs than the cities,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, author of [a July 31 Brookings Institution report]. “In those communities, we see things like poorer health outcomes, failing schools and higher crime rates.”
• [..] the city – which has lost more than 40% of its white population since 2000 – [has] a mostly white city council and police force. [..] The St. Louis metropolitan area ranks as one of the most segregated in the U.S. Ferguson, once a majority white community that’s now about two-thirds black, highlights that dynamic.
• Coinciding with the decline in white population is a rapid rise in poverty since 2000 [..]
• “Looking at the neighborhood poverty rates, it’s striking how much has changed over a decade,” Kneebone said. “In Ferguson in 2000, none of the neighborhoods had hit that 20% poverty rate. By the end of the 2000s, almost every census tract met or exceeded that poverty rate.
• The poverty rate in Ferguson was 22% in 2012, the most recent available, up from 10.2% in 2000. Suburban locales from the outskirts of Atlanta to Colorado Springs have seen similar trends. The number of poor people living in impoverished U.S. suburbs has more than doubled since 2000, comparing to a 50% rise in cities. More than half of the 46 million Americans in poverty now live in suburbs ..
• “The median income is so low in Ferguson that people are really struggling, living from check to check, and they’re even behind checks,” state Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal said.
• “For much of the latter half of the 20th century, it was a pattern of segregation by race, and that’s been displaced somewhat by a segregation by income, which is growing starker and starker in cities like St. Louis.”
While Americans have been – and still are – waiting for the recovery to come that the government and the media promise, their world is not standing still; it’s deteriorating at a fast pace. It just takes them a long time to notice, focused as they are on the illusions.

That is a dangerous dynamic in a country so loaded to the hilt with firearms. Something that the government, at all levels, has been acutely aware of for many years. The calls, in the wake of Ferguson, to de-militarize police forces, look somewhat less than timely or honest or genuine in that light.

The militarization of American police forces has been a very conscious choice by those who long since sensed a threat to their positions, their way of life, and their powers. Not everyone feels they can afford to stare blindly into illusions.

Another aspect of the demise of America as we once knew it, and one very much connected to Ferguson, because it’s economics that drives the whole machinery, is pensions. An amazing graph posted by Tyler Durden, along with some apt comments, explain.

… it is not the 1% that would suffer the most should the S&P have a post-Lehman like 50%+ wipe out, which also means that the Federal Reserve’s only mandate of pushing asset prices to ever higher levels while pretending it does so to boost employment and keep inflation at 2% is no longer for the benefit of the uber-wealthy.
So why can’t, or rather won’t, the Fed let the bubble market collapse once again? Simple – as the following chart shows, the illusion of wealth is now most critical when preserving the myth of the welfare state: some 50% of all US pension fund assets are invested in stocks and only 20% in Treasurys.
This compares to less than 10% for Japan which also explains why for Abe, the only lifeline left is pushing pension funds out of their existing asset allocation sweet spot and forcing them to buy stocks.
What is known is that in a country like Germany between 2005 and 2012 the Pension funds asset rotation out of stocks and into bonds has been truly unprecedented, with stocks plummeting from 30%+ of total exposure to less than 5%! It also explains why Germany was, is and always will be leery of allowing the ECB to pursue asset bubble-inflating policies which would barely benefit pension funds on the equity side …
But back to the US: while the 1%’s paper fungible, market-driven wealth has been long converted into other hard asset formats, it is the paper gains for the future retirees that are on the chopping block should the S&P 500 “get it.”
As such, it is the fate of future retirement funds, and in fact, the very core of the US welfare state that is at stake should there be a massive market crash. In which case what happened in Ferguson will be a polite stroll in the park compared to the chaos that would ensue should another generation of Americans wake up with half or more of their paper wealth wiped out overnight.
… will the Fed be able to avoid a market crash? The answer of course is no. But we will give the podium to Fred Hickey, aka the High-Tech Strategist, who gives a very poetic summary of what the Fed’s endgame will look like:

The Fed hasn’t made the world a better place with its interventions. It has created moral hazard, encouraged the formation of asset bubbles that eventually pop (leaving economic messes), widened the wealth inequality gap to record levels, discouraged savings and investment, severely penalized retirees on fixed incomes, encouraged spending, funded massive government deficit spending by monetizing the debts, lengthened the recession and likely reduced the number of jobs that would have been created if the economy had been allowed to take its normal course.
What Durden forgets to mention is that, given the incredibly outsized exposure US pensions funds have built up to stocks, it’s no wonder the S&P 500 has been setting records.

Another issue he omits is while one may claim the Fed can’t let the stock market crash, it has no such control, if only since because of that same outsized exposure pension funds have to the S&P, they are set and certain to cause their own demise by moving out of stocks and back into bonds.

Recent developments in geopolitics are not a one-off incident. They are merely a first step in the real battle for oil and gas, equals energy, equals power. It’s not going to stop if Ukraine and Russia sign some deal, or if Shi’ites beat Sunnis or the other way around. Every party that sees an opening to increase their share of oil and gas will do so, and increasingly with blunt force. That’s the geopolitics which will be a part of the global – and financial – landscape for the rest of our lives.

That necessarily means that the Fed controlled quiet boom in stocks is over. Volatility is back to stay.
And volatility doesn’t rhyme with pension funds. Risk and potential losses are too great to even consider. So the funds will have to move back into Treasurys. A move that will hurt both stocks AND bonds. And cause more volatility. Rinse and repeat.

It would be suicide for pension funds to stay where they are. It will also be suicidal to move. They’re hugely overexposed to a market that’s only seemingly under control. They purchased themselves into a bind.

Just like America developed itself into a bind. By building an infrastructure around its city cores that is increasingly, and rapidly, becoming an expansive layer of cemeteries for the hopes and dreams of large numbers of its citizens, where millions of poorly constructed and insulated overpaid homes play the part of so many underwater mausoleums.

There is still time to take another look in the mirror. To see what is actually there in your reflection, not what you would like there to be. And make your decisions based on what you see when you do. But that time is not measured in decades, perhaps not even years.


Breeding a Better Chicken

SUBHEAD: Finding an happy outdoor chicken that lays a reasonable amount of eggs, breeds and is tasty roasted.

By Eatwell Farms on 8 August 2014 for CUESA -

Image above: Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farms with chicks he hoping will "do it all". From original article.

While many conscientious eaters go out of their way to purchase pasture-raised eggs laid by happy chickens, it’s a little-known fact that almost all eggs have a hidden cost: millions of baby male chicks are killed each year at the hatcheries that raise egg-laying hens. Even humane, organic egg producers are reliant on these large hatcheries.

“It’s a dirty little secret, isn’t it?” says farmer Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farm in Dixon, California, who has ordered thousands of Production Red chicks each year for his diversified organic farm.

“Many customers have asked me about this practice, and I’ve been very truthful with them,” he says. “I’ve always been uncomfortable with it, but I wasn’t able to find a good solution until now.”

Earlier this week, Eatwell Farm launched a crowdfunding campaign on the online platform Barnraiser to start a chicken breeding program, which aims to eliminate the farm’s reliance on hatcheries. “We want to step up to the next level because we think it’s the right thing to do,” says Nigel.

Live Fast, Die Young

 Up until the last century, chickens were raised outdoors for the dual purpose of eggs and meat. Around the mid-twentieth century, breeders began to focus on developing specialized breeds for indoor industrial production. “These birds are selected to live in a house with 25,000 other birds with constant light and heat all year round,” Nigel says. “That’s not the environment we have in the fields.”

Popular meat breeds like the Cornish Cross have been bred for rapid growth, to the detriment of other characteristics such as longevity and disease resistance. “The average chicken in our country is processed [slaughtered] at 37 days,” says Jim Adkins, founder of the Sustainable Poultry Network in Old Fort, North Carolina. “If you and I grew at that rate, we would be 260 pounds by the time we’re two years old.”

Modern layers like the White Leghorn and Rhode Island Red are also bred for productivity: they lay 250 to 300 eggs a year. After about 14 months, they stop producing, making them virtually useless to a farmer, except for processing into chicken stock.

Because laying breeds don’t grow fast enough to be profitable for meat production, egg farmers have no incentive to raise the males, making them reliant on the hatcheries to replenish their flock every year. Once the chicks are sexed at the hatchery, the males are killed—ground alive, gassed, or otherwise disposed of.

Out of the Hatchery

A couple years ago, Nigel attended an Acres USA farming conference in Kentucky where he met Jim Adkins, who opened his eyes to a different way of raising chickens.

A bird enthusiast and hobbyist who had raised more than 50 different breeds of chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys, Jim has seen all sides of the poultry industry. For several years, he was a supervisor at a large-scale turkey operation, where he witnessed the unsustainability of modern poultry breeding.  “I thought, ‘Something is wrong with this picture,’” he says.

In 2010, he founded the Sustainable Poultry Network, with the goal of restoring heritage breeds and training farmers to humanely and sustainably breed their own flocks. “We are on a mission to put the old breeds of poultry back to work,” he says. While such birds may produce fewer eggs and put on pounds more slowly than modern breeds, they tend to be more healthy, resilient, and productive in the long run.

Nigel hired Jim as a consultant to help him start a dual-purpose breeding program at Eatwell Farm. Eatwell is one of the largest operations Jim has worked with so far, but interest is growing.
“Nigel is definitely on the forefront,” says Jim. “To be able to breed your flock so it’s sustainable is a lot of hard work.”

Starting from Scratch

 For Eatwell, Jim recommended the Black Australorp, a dual-purpose breed with dark, shiny feathers. Last spring, Nigel bought 200 chicks (half male, half female) from a hatchery in North Carolina. When the Australorps arrived, they instantly took to the pasture and were more vibrant and alert than the Production Reds Nigel was accustomed to.

Jim chose seven males and 35 females to start the breeding families. “It’s a bit like heirloom tomatoes,” say Nigel, who is well-versed in saving seeds. “You select the ones that do really well in your environment.”

As the flock grows, the birds must be carefully tracked. Each time a hen goes to lay an egg, a door closes behind her (in what is called a trap nest) so that the bird and her egg can be recorded by Eatwell staff. The best of the best will be selected for hatching.

Nigel’s hope is that Eatwell will be able to replace their flock of nearly 3,000 Production Reds within the next two years, possibly sooner, and the farm will no longer have to purchase chicks from hatcheries. Whereas the Production Reds lay for only about one year, the Australorps are productive for at least three. The males will be raised to maturity and processed for meat, providing additional income for the farm. Nigel may also be able to sell his locally adapted Australorps to other farms in the area.

Raising the Barn

Completing such an ambitious project takes time and money that is not currently in the farm’s budget. The $20,000 requested on Barnraiser will help cover the costs of infrastructure, from incubators and nesting boxes to labor and consulting fees. (Pending additional funding, Nigel and Jim hope to develop a mobile app to help organize the breeding data and track flocks remotely, a tool that could be used by breeders across the country.)

This is not the first time Nigel has turned to his community for help in starting a new project. The farm originally set up its egg operation with financial help from his CSA members, who were demanding organic eggs. They quickly raised and loaned him $25,000, which was later paid back in full.

Today, the income from Eatwell’s eggs barely covers the costs of production, but chickens play an invaluable role in the farm’s ecosystem, having eliminated the need for compost and external fertilizers.

“The real core issue here is getting animals back on farms and out of these confinement operations,” says Nigel. “Yes, we want their eggs, and the meat is great, too, but the reason we have our chickens is that they eat the pasture and fertilize the ground. All our organic vegetables are grown with fertility from cover crops and chickens.”

He continues, “We’re trying to find a bird that can live outside, where it can express all of its chickenness, but still lay a very reasonable amount of eggs and make an absolutely tasty roast chicken.”

Look for Eatwell Farm at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays. To learn more and support their fundraising campaign, visit Barnraiser.
Eatwell Farm photos by Jamie LeJeune and Eatwell Farm.


Pope considers GMOs

SUBHEAD: Peasants and scientists ask Pope Francis to intervene against GMO seeds.

By Staff on 14 August 2014 for EtcGroup -

Image above: Pope Francis wears an indigenous feathered hat given to him by representatives of one of Brazil’s native tribes during a meeting at the Municipal Theater in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, July 27, 2013. From (

At the request of major peasant organizations, and with the permission of Pope Francis, a group of scientists and agricultural experts have now made public a letter and document on the problem of genetically modified seeds that was sent to the Vatican on 30 April 2014.

 Signed by eight experts from Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, India and Canada, the letter and accompanying document (attached) call upon His Holiness to speak out against the negative impacts of GM seeds on the world’s peasants and global food security.

The document questions the scientific basis of GM technology, its failure to increase yields, the exponential increase in pesticide use, the dangers of transgenic  contamination of peasant crops, the threat to human health and the concern that GM seeds are patented and monopolized by a handful of transnational corporations.

The scientists particularly identify GM maize contamination in its Centre of Origin and Diversity in Meso-America and the imminent threat of GM Rice in Asia – that crop’s Centre of Origin and Diversity.  The scientists are also concerned that bills currently in the Brazilian Congress could legalize the commercial use of Terminator seeds (GM seeds that die at harvest) potentially overturning the long-standing UN moratorium against the suicide seed technology.

MST, The Landless Rural Workers Movement in Brazil, a founding member of Via Campesina – the world’s peasant organization representing 200 million smallholder producers – asked the scientists to prepare their report late in 2013 following a meeting with Pope Francis held at the Vatican.  The Rome meeting brought together marginalized and unemployed people’s to discuss livelihoods.

The threat of GM seeds came up as peasant leaders from Brazil’s MST described the land threats, high costs and food insecurity created by the widespread imposition of GM crops in their country.  Following this, the Vatican asked the peasant movement for a short list of scientists knowledgeable about the negative impacts of GM crops.

Preparation of the text was complicated by the sudden illness and eventual death of Prof. Andrés Carrasco of Argentina who played an important role in the process. Prof. Carrasco was the author of a breakthrough scientific report related to the negative health impacts of Monsanto’s glyphosate herbicide in Argentina.

Pope Francis has agreed that the letter and study be made public.The other seven signatories to the submission are Ana María Primavesi (Austria/Brazil), Elena Álvarez-Buylla (Mexico), Pat Mooney (Canada), Paulo Kageyama (Brazil), Rubens Nodari (Brazil), Vandana Shiva (India), and Wanderley Pignati (Brazil).

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has identified specific Centres of Origin and Diversity around the world where the greatest genetic variability of major crops can be found. The genetic diversity in these Centres is considered by the scientific community to be vital for long-term food security and for farmers to respond to Climate Change. GM contamination in these Centers could wipe out this diversity.

Terminator seeds have been condemned by FAO and are the subject of a 2000 moratorium by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Under public and UN pressure, major seed companies have agreed to honor the moratorium.

Because the GM seeds die at harvest time, farmers would be obliged to buy new seed each growing season at enormous cost and with a devastating loss in diversity.

For further information, please contact:
Pat Mooney,, Canada, +1 613 241 2267 ext. 23
Silvia Ribeiro,, Mexico, +52 55 5563-2664
Veronica Villa,, Mexico, +52 55 5563-2664
Unión de Científicos Comprometidos con la Sociedad, UCCS,
The letter to Pope Francis and the document, entitled “Why Genetically Modified Crops Pose a Threat to Peasants, Food Sovereignty, Health, and Biodiversity on the Planet” can be found here.


Mr. Toad in Union Grove

SUBHEAD: Review of novel  "A History of The Future" by James Howard Kunstler. Book 3 of 4.

By Albert bates on 13 August 2014 for Resilience -

Image above: Book cover illustration by Michael Hague of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. From (

Pulling a copy of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in The Willows off a bookshelf, Andrew Pendergast, without question James Howard Kunstler’s most autobiographical character in this series so far, sits at the bedside of his friend Jack Harron, who is recuperating from a deadly fight with an assailant bent on murdering them both.
“What’s the book about?” Jack said when Andrew held up the cover.
“A rat and a mole and a badger and a toad who mess around in boats down by a little stream in the English countryside.”
“They all get along, all these different animals?” Jack said.
“They’re all friends,” Andrew said. “It’s a book about friendship.”
 A History of The Future is a book about friendship. It describes another hard won Christmas season in the lives of the citizens of Union Grove, a Hudson Valley town that we have come to know and appreciate in previous installments of the World Made By Hand series.

Back are many of the earlier characters, including some we have not seen for quite some time, and new and even more interesting refugees enter our circle of friends.
The novel is an exploration of the process of rebuilding a broken civilization, even as the old continues to decay and collapse in both expected and unexpected ways. Civil society cannot be rebuilt by solitary individuals, religious charismatics, wealthy aristocrats, or fascist dictators although all those find a place in this future world. It takes the whole lot — the rats, the moles, the badgers and the toads — struggling to cooperate as friends, to find common ground and stand a chance.
Kunstler is a moralist. His good guys win. The bad guys get what they deserve, or are just left to inhabit whatever Hell they’ve made for themselves. The tale, though, revolves around what a good guy has to do, just to survive.
The Yiddish word beshert refers to that which God has given. And, in Judaism — as in Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and probably every other religion — there has always been a heated debate about how much of fate is determined by higher authority — a monster in the sky, as Paul Erhlich says — and how much is the result of human choices — good and bad.  To quote Maimonides,
“Every human being can be righteous or wicked, merciful or cruel, avaricious or charitable. There is no compulsion exerted upon one. A person chooses one’s way with one’s own determination.”
 Maimonides, who lived in Spain at the end of the 12th century, also did not think of progress in terms of technological or cultural advancement, as cumulative. Maimonides said it was cyclical. This is the aboriginal view, and for someone in his time and place, or even now, it’s quite a radical notion. 

For Kunstler, we can foretell our future by simply surveying the contemporary milieu — global Ponzi economics, gas gauge on ‘E’, weather getting weird — but history is circular. After the cataclysm comes another Christmas.
We have often disagreed with Kunstler’s provincial view of the American South as it occasionally pops up in his nonfiction essays and books. Kunstler is such a devout Yankee that he has often portrayed New England wisdom and ingenuity as the sole province of the old Union; that below the Mason-Dixon Line there be nothing but Skol-chewing bubbas, hearing-damaged NASCAR fanatics, racial bigots and fried food junkies imprisoned by air conditioning.
The War of Northern Aggression, in our humble opinion, was, like most wars, all about energy. The North was rich in coal and the factories run by that magnificent jewel of fossil sunlight.

Then, mid18th century, Col. Drake discovered bubbling “coal oil” in Pennsylvania, a real game changer.
In contrast to these überpowerful energy slaves, the Southern states operated on the old economy, you know, the human and animal-powered one. The one that built the pyramids of Egypt and Mesoamerica, and Machu Picchu and the Great Wall. The Southern plantation economy was based on imports of African slaves. The North had the luxury of enough fossil energy slaves to afford emancipation of its human ones. The moral rectitude to actually do so gradually arrived, in fits and starts. Then they had to lord it over everyone else.
Until Texas and Louisiana discovered oil half a century later, the South had no such leeway. In the epic 19th century contest between machine power and humans, the machine won.

A region of the United States that was militarily superior in the acumen of its Generals, the skill of its cavalry and the esprit of brotherly men in arms was occupied and enslaved, then punished for more than a century, reduced to the lowest echelons on every index of human welfare, and finally addicted to talk radio, NASCAR and air conditioning. But don’t count them out.
Surprisingly, Kunstler doesn’t. He takes a more generous tack in A History of the Future. The South, while enthralled by Christian bigots, has established itself as a rival government to what is left of the federal sovereignty, rumored to be somewhere up in the Great Lakes. The center of this rival government is at Franklin, Tennessee, a town with which we are personally very familiar — Old Highway 31S is a route we’ve bicycled.
Franklin today embodies much of what Kunstler-the-non-fiction-expert-on-urban-design lauds. It revitalized its pedestrian downtown by moving traffic out to encircling corridors; enshrined its landmark buildings; in-filled the broken teeth on Main Street with antebellum vernacular; and revived the local arts, theater and music scene. While it has become for now a tony bedroom community for wealthy Nashville commuters, it is a perfect setting for a national capitol in a more austere and decentralized future. In many ways, Franklin Tennessee is Union Grove, only hotter.
The World Made By Hand series gives only short glimpses of the changes in weather that lie in store for any future history. There may be a shortage of wheat or a ruined season for other crops, but Union Grove still gets snow in winter. Sacramento is still above water and apparently no one has died of insect swarms or clathrate flares. Changes in climate, which are almost certain to radically alter our lives in the next 50 years, are not really part of this story.
In any science fiction yarn that becomes a series a writer has to be alert to the danger of revealing too much backstory lest new narrative choices are straightjacketed in with the old, or worse, the details he describes are so ludicrous in light of actual events that his work later falls into ridicule.
In his first two novels, much of Kunstler’s imagined history remained cloaked in mystery and conjecture. As the dust jacket tells the casual browser, “The electricity has flickered out. The automobile age is over. The computers are all down for good. Two great cities have been destroyed. Epidemics have ravaged the population. The people of a little town named Union Grove, in upstate New York, know little about what is going on outside Washington County.”
The third novel gives a much larger sweep of the shocks that presaged the predicament in which the people of Union Grove find themselves. Our “messenger,” Robert Earle’s long lost son Daniel, arrives back on Christmas Eve, near dead from exhaustion and hunger, to tell the story of what he saw “out there.”
So gripping is his story that in the print edition, Grove Atlantic has set it apart with a change of font and format. It is a novel within a novel, and we would defy anyone to set it down for longer than it takes to refill a teacup.

With Daniel’s story Kunstler has us in his grip, but he teases us with the intermittent resumption of the “real time” plots and subplots, leaving us hanging onto our curiosity as we wade through the needs of Union Groves’ badgers and moles for their part in the tale. Kunstler is teaching us patience, an attribute that our digital world is trying hard to render obsolete. It is an essential skill for the turn that our collective sense of passing time is poised to make.
When you walk from home to work, or to shop; when you sit out to watch the sunset instead of the television; when you spend a day teaching yourself bicycle mechanics, watercolor, or cheese making — you are once again present in the world. To the uninitiated, peering in at this scenario for the future, it all seems so very quaint. Hardly.
“I got forty-six highly motivated skilled men with good tools,” Brother Jobe tells Magistrate Stephen Bullock. “That’s my insurance. And, by the way, if you thought that was funny, it ain’t.”

• Book available at Battenkill Books (autographed by the Author) |  Northshire Books | Amazon


Seed Libraires and the Law

SUBHEAD: Setting the record straight on the legality of local seed libraries and exchanges.

By Janelle Orsi & Neil Thapar on 11 August 2014 for -

Image above: The Seed Library of Los Angeles is open for business on 18 February 2012 . From (

After the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture cracked down on a community seed library, hundreds of seed libraries in the U.S. are suddenly wondering if they are breaking the law. According to PA regulators, in order to give out member-donated seeds, the Simpson Seed Library in Cumberland County would have to put around 400 seeds of each variety through prohibitively impractical seed testing procedures in order to determine quality, rate of germinability, and so on.

The result of the PA crackdown is that the library can no longer give out seeds other than those which are commercially packaged.

Quite ironically, this is in the name of “protecting and maintaining the food sources of America.” In this news article that went viral, regulators cited, among other things, that “agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario.” In reality, seed libraries have emerged in an effort to protect our food sources and to ensure access to locally adapted and heirloom varieties.

The public’s access to seeds has been narrowing ever since 1980, when the Supreme Court ruled that a life-form could be patented. Since then, large seed companies have shifted away from open-pollinated seeds to patented hybridized and genetically-engineered varieties.

The companies generally prohibit farmers from saving and replanting the seeds, requiring that farmers buy new seed each year. In response to this trend, seed libraries give members free seeds and request that members later harvest seed and give back to the library in the future, thereby growing the pool of seeds available to everyone.

Seed Law Basics
It’s important to set the record straight about the legalities of seed libraries. Let’s begin with the basics: In every state, there are laws requiring seed companies to be licensed, test seeds, and properly label them. At the federal level, there is a comparable law governing seed companies that sell seeds in interstate commerce.

All of these laws exist for good reason: If a tomato grower buys 10,000 tomato seeds, the grower’s livelihood is on the line if the seeds turn out to be of poor quality or the wrong variety.

Seed laws, like other truth-in-labeling laws, keep seed companies accountable, prevent unfair competition in the seed industry, and protect farmers whose livelihoods depend on access to quality seeds. The testing and labeling of the seeds also helps to prevent noxious weeds and invasive species from getting into the mix.

In some states, the licensing, labeling, and testing laws only apply if you sell seed. In other states, such as California, the laws apply if you even offer seeds for barter, exchange, or trade. How do you define words like sell, barter, exchange, and trade? And how do they apply to seed libraries? Read on if you are ready to venture into interesting legal grey areas.

In at least one state (yup, Pennsylvania), even supplying seeds make you subject to at least some regulation. But the Pennsylvania seed law is about to be put to the test, and we think that regulators should have read their law more carefully.

Using the Letter of the Law
When you see a law enforced unfairly, read the letter of the law and see if you can find holes in it. Found one!

In Pennsylvania, supplying seed might make you subject to the requirement to get a license, which involves filling out a form and paying an annual $25 fee (Section 7103, Chapter 71 of PA Consolidated Statutes). However, the sections of the law (7104, 7105, etc.) that mandate testing and labeling only apply if you sell seed. Not “supply,” but “sell!”

Has anyone in Pennsylvania noticed this nuance since the whole kerfuffle with Simpson Seed Library began? Seed libraries in Pennsylvania could perhaps test this: Fill out the license form, pay the $25 fee, and continue to operate as usual.

If the PA Department of Agriculture demands testing and labeling of seeds, a seed library could try holding its ground until the regulators see their own error or until a court makes a determination that the library is not “selling” seeds.

(Note: We’re not giving legal advice here! Get legal advice from a PA lawyer, because breaking this law the first time could result in up to 90 days of prison time, and breaking it the second time can result in up to two years.)

Working Within Grey Areas
California and other states define “sell” to include exchange, barter, or trade. This broad definition helps to ensure that people can’t sidestep regulation simply because they aren’t using dollars to bargain. Bargaining is a key concept in all of this.

We have innumerable regulations designed to temper the potential harms that arise when people bargain in the context of commerce. Merchants have an incentive to seek high prices and to reduce their costs in order to get more.

When people transact within the “get more” frame of mind, it is far more likely they will cut corners, disregard risks, be careless, mislead people, and so on. That’s why regulations apply when people sell things, but rarely when people give things.''

Seed libraries have a “give more” frame of mind, which motivates the libraries to do right by their members and the community. They ask people to donate seed back to the library, but do so with the goal of giving away more seed. The letter of the law doesn’t tell us that seed libraries are clearly exempt from regulation, but the spirit of the law does.

When the application of a law is unclear, we must go deeper to hone our legal arguments. Although the libraries both give and receive seeds, there’s a strong argument that they do not, in fact, exchange seed in the way the California regulation envisions.

To find solid legal ground for this argument, seed libraries can borrow legal arguments from time banks. A time bank is an organization through which members do favors for one another and award one another a “time dollar” or “time credit” for every hour of service. People can use their time credits to reward favors they receive from other members of the network.

The IRS has acknowledged in private letter rulings that this activity is distinct from that of a barter exchange for two primary reasons:
  1. the giving and receiving of favors happens informally, meaning that people get no contractual right to have their favor returned, and

  2. the exchanges are non-commercial, as demonstrated by the fact that everyone’s hour is valued equally, meaning that people are not bargaining for services at market rate.

Similarly, seed libraries generally give and receive seeds on an informal basis, meaning that neither the library nor its members have a right or requirement to give seed. Members likely have a sense of responsibility to give back to the seed library, but the library cannot force them to do so. In addition, seed libraries give and receive seeds on a non-commercial basis.

People neither pay money for seeds, nor do they measure the value of seeds they give in proportion to what they get. You can learn more the about nuanced differences between giving, swapping, exchanging, and selling here and here.

Note that it’s important for seed libraries to ensure that their policies, languaging, and practices reflect what we’ve described in the above paragraph.

If the library makes people feel as if they are required to give seed later on or if the library is counting seeds in order to keep score somehow, then the library might actually come under the regulations. We have seen at least one seed library that has members sign a contract indicating that the member “shall” or “agrees to” donate twice the amount of seed that they checked out. This is risky.

We suggest that all seed libraries review their documents and revise paperwork in order to simply collect information from members about what kind of seed they received, what they are donating, their experience with the plant, and so on.

Crowdsourcing a Seed Law Library
Drawing upon the spirit of reciprocity that motivates seed libraries, we’d like to urge readers to take 30 minutes and give back by doing research on other states’ seed laws.

We’ve created a Hackpad where anyone can add links to state seed laws, copy and paste in key provisions, and add your comments and questions. Wanna take a crack at it? It’s very empowering to learn how to find and navigate laws.

The American Seed Trade Association compiled a list of state seed laws, but many of the links are broken, so you may need to access the laws by navigating through state agricultural codes. Commonly, state seed laws live in two places: 1) state statutes created by legislators, and 2) regulations created by the state department of agriculture. You need to review both.

We Still Need to Change These Laws!
Even though we have arguments that seed libraries are not subject to state and federal testing and labeling requirements, it would be ideal for our laws to say this explicitly. No matter what state you are in, you could look on either end of the political spectrum and probably find a legislator who would be sympathetic to these issues. You could ask a legislator to introduce a bill that has simple language such as:

“Notwithstanding any other provision of this [law, act, chapter, article], Seed Libraries shall be exempt from all licensing, testing, labeling, and other requirements of this [law, act, chapter, article]. ‘Seed Library’ shall be defined as a nonprofit, cooperative, or governmental organization that donates seed and receives donations of seed.”

Depending on how much discretion your state department of agriculture has with regard to the crafting of regulations, you could, instead, simply ask the department to amend the regulations.

Also, we recommend that seed libraries and other advocates write letters to the Association of American Seed Control Officials (AASCO), a national membership organization comprised of state seed regulatory officials. Among other activities, AASCO developed and maintains the Revised Uniform State Seed Law, the model law on which many states’ seed laws are based.

If AASCO were to expressly exempt seed libraries from regulation, several states would likely follow suit, since they often adopt wholesale AASCO’s recommendations. AASCO’s membership directory also contains mailing and email addresses for seed regulators in each state, so we recommend that everyone write to them as well.

If we change laws to create a clear legal space for seed libraries, we should perhaps also do so for small-scale seed enterprises. If current law requires a seed business to test 400 seeds of each variety, this privileges large seed companies, and effectively blocks farmers from starting small seed enterprises.

Further, the scale of operation should make a difference when it comes to achieving the goals of these laws. If a package of 100 seeds ends up being of poor quality or if it contains noxious weeds, the harm to the grower or to society is much lower than if the packet contained 10,000 seeds.

Likewise, seed sales that are conducted direct-to-consumer within a small geographic area present minimal risk of introducing new invasive or noxious species. Thus, when we change the laws, we should also create exemptions and lower compliance hurdles for seed enterprises that sell seeds in small quantities, direct-to-consumer, and/or within a confined region.

In the big picture, laws should not try to protect citizens from all imaginable harms nor should laws overreach into all areas of our lives. Every law requires a balancing act. Although driving a car is quite dangerous, people are allowed to do it, because society has decided that the benefit of mobility outweighs the risk of harm.

Similarly, during times of food insecurity, climate disruption, and genetic consolidation of the sources of our food (seeds!), the benefit of seed libraries is enormous as compared to the potential harm of a seed packet gifted within a community. Let’s make sure our laws get with the times!

• This article was written by Janelle Orsi and Neil Thapar of the Sustainable Economies Law Center, with input from Neal Gorenflo of Shareable, and Sarah Baird of the Center for a New American Dream.


Guardians of the Plains

SUBHEAD: One Lakota family's plan to fend off South Dakota's epic climate change drought.

By -

Image above:  Kyanne Dillabaugh and her son Cody Livermont place logs in a water catchment on the Cheyenne River Reservation. Photo by Ryan Reese. From original artilce.

[IB Editor's comment: You won't be able to rely on the corporations, or County-State-Federal government to fix the propblem. This is what it is going to take here in Hawaii - Local people, families and neighbors going out and modifying their environment to achieve a sustainable future.]

Long years of drought in South Dakota have made it difficult for the soil to absorb water. A group led by indigenous women hopes to change that through a ambitious dam-building project.

My GPS went berserk when I crossed the Missouri River near Lake Oahe in South Dakota. It kept telling me to make U-turns, tying me up in knots.

This is the Cheyenne River Reservation, home to the Lakota tribe of the same name, about half of whose members live here. It’s also home to Ziebach County, one of the poorest in the United States. I had come to Cheyenne River to meet the organizers of a small grassroots group called Mni, which means “water” in Lakota.

They were in the middle of two weeks of ambitious water conservation work, constructing a series of small dams with help from two dozen or so volunteers from around the county. I had been told to look for a campsite, but I wasn’t sure where it was or what to expect.

Bright green hills stretched on uninterrupted to the horizon. I was alone on a muddy dirt road, hoping my little Volkswagon wouldn’t get stuck. Once in a while I passed a mobile home with a few junked cars parked outside or cattle grazing nearby, but the only sounds were crickets and the wind in the grass.

After 10 miles, I crossed a rushing creek and saw a cluster of tents by the side of the road. This had to be it—yet the camp was not only deserted but flooded under several inches of water. The creek had overflowed and the people had left. But where had they gone?

I decided to head back to the highway to find cellphone service and began the bumpy ride that would take me there. It was then that I encountered an incongruous sight: a van parked by the side of the road, and a small film crew with a camera pointed at a petite woman in her sixties with long gray hair and cutoff jeans. I recognized her as Candace Ducheneaux, one of Mni’s leaders and an organizer of the water project. I pulled over and watched as she spoke to the camera.

The green of the hills was deceptive, she said. The appearance of lushness was only on the surface. People here had begun to notice the changing climate; after a drought that had persisted in the region on and off for 15 years, this summer’s heavy rains had inundated the South Dakota plains.

But the dry ground, she said, was unable to absorb the large quantities of rain, which ran off into flooded creeks down the Missouri River, without ever replenishing the aquifer.

Mni’s goal, she explained to the camera, is to bring Cheyenne River’s water table back into balance. It’s an ambitious one: By constructing thousands of small dams in creeks and gulleys all over the reservation—essentially beaver dams built by humans—organizers hope to slow storm runoff long enough to enable the absorption of water back into the ground.

True to its Lakota roots, Mni is rooted in the tiospaye—the Lakota word for extended family—and comprises Candace, her daughters Karen Ducheneaux and Kyanne Dillabaugh, her son Luke, his wife Linda, and nearly all of their children. Standing on a hill with Candace, looking out over the hills that seemed to go on forever, I couldn’t imagine how they’d do it.

But Mni is starting small, with a pilot project on a small parcel of family-owned land. If it’s successful, the Ducheneaux's plan is to build similar dams all over Cheyenne River and train workers from the other reservations in South Dakota, creating a model of water restoration that can be replicated anywhere.

“We have a million acres of tribal land here,” Candace says. “If we could convince the indigenous nations to begin water restoration—to unite in it—not only could we have a huge impact on the hydrologic cycle, but we could also set an example for the rest of the world.”

“But,” she says, “we understand it’s going to be a fight.”

Origins of a drought

Ducheneaux has a big vision for this project. For her, South Dakota’s depleted aquifer is just one small part in a global problem of water cycles interrupted by human industry. “It isn’t just this one little micro project,” she says. “It’s all the land in the world that has to be put into water restoration.”

The family has brought in specialists to help convince the tribal council to implement sustainable water programs, including Goldman Environmental Prize-winning hydrologist Michal Kravcik, who spearheaded a visionary water restoration program in his native Slovakia. They’ve studied the work of the rancher Valer Austin, who created a similar dam infrastructure on her land in Mexico and restored fertility to a place where once only mesquite could grow.

From June 22 to July 4, Mni brought volunteers, teachers, and students to Cheyenne River and began putting their ideas into practice. The project was funded in part by a grant from Colorado State University’s Center for Collaborative Conservation and was conducted in partnership with the school’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

Over the course of two weeks, the group surveyed, designed, and constructed 19 small dams, or water catchments, made of 8 to 12 foot logs filled in with rocks and twigs. It’s all held together by South Dakota’s infamous “gumbo” mud, so sticky it dries like cement; I was intimately familiar with the stuff, having already spent a few hours digging it out of my tires. At the campsite by the creek, they also built a shade structure for workshops and planted a garden.

The reasons for Cheyenne River’s water crisis are complex: The long years of drought have made it difficult for soil to absorb water. The disappearance of bison has drastically altered the ecosystem as a whole. The Oahe Dam—one of four dams built on native land in South Dakota during the 1950s and ’60s—has permanently interrupted the Missouri River’s natural flow.

Ducheneaux was just a child when her family was forced to move because of the Oahe Dam construction, and she remembers the experience well. Since then, she’s spent a great deal of time observing the changing terrain of her homeland—how the drought has changed the landscape, and where the water goes when it rains. These are the minute observations that inform her ideas about restoring fertility to the land.

Building beaver dams by hand

During construction of the Oahe Dam the river’s bottomlands were flooded, the people who lived there forced to relocate, and the cottonwood trees used by beavers to make dams nearly disappeared.

According to Michael Brydge, an instructor of cultural anthropology at Colorado State University who participated in the camp, those beaver dams served to slow the pace of water running through creeks, facilitating absorption into the ground. Without these, he says, water runs right off the hills and into gulleys that carry it to the Missouri and out to the Gulf of Mexico.

Brydge, who came to Cheyenne River with a group of students from Colorado State, brings with him 18 years of construction experience he acquired before going into academia. But since none of them are dam experts, he and the Mni team are looking to the creatures that are: beavers.

Before the construction of the Oahe Dam, beavers would have built countless dams in places all over the reservation. Now, Brydge and his students are interested in seeing if human-made dams can play a similar role to the beaver dams of the past. They looked at the construction of old ones nearby, analyzing the materials they were made from and the details of their placement. Then they built a pilot dam in a creek near the campsite.

When the storm came and the creek overflowed, they got a chance to test it out—and realized that it was in the wrong place. The dam was overwhelmed by the rising waters.

For Brydge, the flash flood was a gift, demonstrating how water behaves during storms that he believes will only become more frequent. Armed with these observations, he and his students built dams in new locations. They realized that the campsite was too easily flooded and any future structures would have to be built elsewhere. “Now we know,” Brydge says.

The partnership between Mni and Colorado State is new, and tentative. But for Brydge, it’s an important step toward changing a pattern of projects that fail because they are directed by outsiders—people who aren’t part of the communities they’re trying to help.

He’s observed a dozen similar projects on reservations, he says, with “outsiders coming in with an idea, with the materials that they want to test in this community. They wouldn’t do it in their own neighborhood or even in their own county, but they’re going to test it here. And it fails, and they never came back.”

What’s important here, he says, is that the project is family-based, rooted in Lakota tradition and culture, and that all decisions are made by the family—not by funders.

“The dream is with them,” says Brydge. “It ebbs and flows, but it’s their dream. It doesn’t come in with an outsider and leave with an outsider.”

The campsite still wasn’t dry enough to return to, so for now the little house was serving as headquarters, dormitory, and mess hall for the Mni project. Normally, Karen Ducheneaux lives there with Candace and four children. They’re used to overcrowding here, she assured me. It’s normal to cram three or four families into a single house.

Overcrowding is just one strand in a dense web of deeply entrenched problems that plague reservations all over North America: inadequate housing, job scarcity, high rates of illness, and corrupt and ineffective tribal governments.

Nearly everyone is on some form of public assistance. Houses are poorly constructed and plagued with problems: In Swiftbird, Karen tells me, many of the bathrooms stink of black mold that makes people sick.

Here on Cheyenne River Reservation, where unemployment among tribal members can run as high as 88 percent and where suicide and depression are endemic, the Ducheneaux often find themselves swimming against a tide of hopelessness.

What’s more, Karen says, because of the poverty—a legacy of colonization that is very much alive—people try not to stick their necks out. They play by the rules. “It’s hard to be anything other than a conformist,” she says. “And even then, it’s hard to get along because we’re so poor here, and there are so few resources that we’re all trying to make use of.”

The Ducheneaux are known for not playing by the rules—they have a reputation, they tell me, of being an outspoken bunch.

So rather than continue to fight an unresponsive tribal government that fails to repair inadequate public housing, a few years ago they began to ask themselves how they could build a different life. In the words of Candace’s daughter Kyanne Dillabaugh, “What can we do that’s really going to make a difference, for us, our family, our tiospaye, for our people as a whole?”

Making it home

As the sun went down, we drove back to Ducheneaux’s house in a cluster of small, boxy residences on a hill, called Swiftbird. It’s one of about 20 such clusters on the reservation. The front yard was flooded from the rain. Inside, about 15 volunteers were crowded into the living room, eating sloppy Joes with three little kids, a few dogs, and the film crew, which had come all the way from France.

So they came up with a vision for a lifestyle that’s radically different—or radically traditional, depending on how you look at it.

Where Mni’s water restoration will benefit everyone who lives in the area as well as the larger ecosystem, this parallel project is just for the family. Within the next few years, they hope to build a few small houses for themselves, made of natural materials and just big enough for their families, powered by solar energy.

This vision of a new home—away from the black mold, the flooded basements, the crowded bedrooms, the barking dogs—is always present for these women. A place out on the land, where they can grow their own vegetables and not rely so much on public assistance.

They call this vision of a new home “Tatanka Wakpala,” or Buffalo Creek, after the sacred buffalo that once roamed these hills.

The family is very definite in its commitment to its ancestral homeland—and unusual, since less than half of the Cheyenne River tribe’s enrolled members choose to live on the reservation. The Ducheneaux women know what it’s like to live elsewhere—they’ve all tried it at one time or another, for school or work or because of their partners. But they feel bound to this place, and even more strongly bound to each other, to the support of the tiospaye.

Away from the reservation, “You’re just completely on your own, you know?” says Dillabaugh, who moved to Rapid City, S.D., for a time to go to college. “You’re barely able to scrape by, with no family to fall back on, no relative down the street to help you with your kids.” It becomes overwhelming. “So you get tired of that and you go back to your community.”

“Being here, you have your people with you. And this is our place, this is our home … At this point in my life, I don’t really want to be anywhere else.”

Dual dreams

But in order to build Tatanka Wakpala, the family needs time and money. And the longer they wait, the further into the future their dream of a real home recedes. “We tried to quit our jobs once and just work on this project,” Karen says as her youngest child crawls up into her lap. “But soon we ran out of funds. It wasn’t sustainable.”

Between working their jobs, raising children, and battling the frustrating bureaucracy of the tribal government, each woman has a role in building both Mni and Tatanka Wakpala: Candace is the visionary and talks expansively about the global hydrologic cycle. Kyanne has been studying sustainable technology for several years, whenever she has the time—solar water heaters, straw bale houses. Karen is the writer and is in charge of most of the grant applications and paperwork.

Linda—who married into the family just after the camp finished—is an ethnobotanist with a trove of knowledge about regional ecology.

In some ways, they are part of a Lakota tradition that honors women as both participants in tribal politics and as creators of life, guardians of the home. In this family, with many of the men absent, it is the mothers and sisters who have stepped up to fill the roles of both activists and caregivers. The Ducheneaux women don’t see those things in opposition; in their efforts to protect land and water, they also believe they’re protecting the lives of their own children, generations down the road.
What’s more, they won’t be doing the work alone.

There’s a larger trend at play here, a movement of grassroots development projects that’s catching on in indigenous communities across South Dakota. I visited a few of them on my trip through the state: a solar energy business on Pine Ridge ; a women’s organization that initiates teenage girls into their first Lakota ceremonies; a family of caretakers for a herd of sacred buffalo; activists working to stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

These projects may be small—or isolated, or underfunded—but they are led by people who are not just Native American but native to the communities in which they work. They haven’t necessarily grown up steeped in Lakota culture, but they’re picking up the pieces of it and preserving what they can.

As with Mni, the visions for these projects are themselves indigenous, rooted in traditional views of family, community, and land. But there’s a forward momentum at work here too; an embrace of affordable, sustainable technology as a way of balancing past and present.

For the time being, the dual dreams of Tatanka Wakpala and Mni are still in the future. Progress is slow, and it may be that Candace Ducheneaux’s 13 grandchildren are the ones who actually see them through. But there’s something significant in the fact that the Ducheneaux family continues its dogged pursuit of this vision after so many centuries of colonization.

Rehabilitating land is, for them, a way of rehabilitating a culture that’s rooted in land; this isn’t just about water, or housing; as Candace says, it’s about “the fate and destiny of our people.”


America's Bitter Legacy

SUBHEAD: The 3rd article in a series on North America's 500 year Dark Age following collapse of industrialization.

By John Michael Greer on 13 August 2014 for the Archdruid Report -

Image above: Abandoned St. Louis Southwestern Railway Station image by Xavier Nuez, 2011. From (

Civilizations normally leave a damaged environment behind them when they fall, and ours shows every sign of following that wearily familiar pattern. The nature and severity of the ecological damage a civilization leaves behind, though, depend on two factors, one obvious, the other less so. The obvious factor derives from the nature of the technologies the civilization deployed in its heyday; the less obvious one depends on how many times those same technologies had been through the same cycle of rise and fall before the civilization under discussion got to them.

There’s an important lesson in this latter factor. Human technologies almost always start off their trajectory through time as environmental disasters looking for a spot marked X, which they inevitably find, and then have the rough edges knocked off them by centuries or millennia of bitter experience.

When our species first developed the technologies that enabled hunting bands to take down big game animals, the result was mass slaughter and the extinction of entire species of megafauna, followed by famine and misery; rinse and repeat, and you get the exquisite ecological balance that most hunter-gatherer societies maintained in historic times.

In much the same way, early field agriculture yielded bumper crops of topsoil loss and subsistence failure to go along with its less reliable yields of edible grain, and the hard lessons from that experience have driven the rise of more sustainable agricultural systems—a process completed in our time with the emergence of organic agricultural methods that build soil rather than depleting it.

Any brand new mode of human subsistence is thus normally cruising for a bruising, and will get it in due time at the hands of the biosphere. That’s not precisely good news for modern industrial civilization, because ours is a brand new mode of human subsistence; it’s the first human society ever to depend almost entirely on extrasomatic energy—energy, that is, that doesn’t come from human or animal muscles fueled by food crops.

In my book The Ecotechnic Future, I’ve suggested that industrial civilization is simply the first and most wasteful of a new mode of human society, the technic society.

 Eventually, I proposed, technic societies will achieve the same precise accommodation to ecological reality that hunter-gatherer societies worked out long ago, and agricultural societies have spent the last eight thousand years or so pursuing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help us much just now.

Modern industrial civilization, in point of fact, has been stunningly clueless in its relationship with the planetary cycles that keep us all alive. Like those early bands of roving hunters who slaughtered every mammoth they could find and then looked around blankly for something to eat, we’ve drawn down the finite stocks of fossil fuels on this planet without the least concern about what the future would bring—well, other than the occasional pious utterance of thoughtstopping mantras of the “Oh, I’m sure they’ll think of something” variety.

That’s not the only thing we’ve drawn down recklessly, of course, and the impact of our idiotically short-term thinking on our long-term prospects will be among the most important forces shaping the next five centuries of North America’s future.

Let’s start with one of the most obvious: topsoil, the biologically active layer of soil that can support food crops. On average, as a result of today’s standard agricultural methods, North America’s arable land loses almost three tons of topsoil from each cultivated acre every single year. Most of the topsoil that made North America the breadbasket of the 20th century world is already gone, and at the current rate of loss, all of it will be gone by 2075.

That would be bad enough if we could rely on artificial fertilizer to make up for the losses, but by 2075 that won’t be an option: the entire range of chemical fertilizers are made from nonrenewable resources—natural gas is the main feedstock for nitrate fertilizers, rock phosphate for phosphate fertilizers, and so on—and all of these are depleting fast.

Topsoil loss driven by bad agricultural practices is actually quite a common factor in the collapse of civilizations. Sea-floor cores in the waters around Greece, for example, show a spike in sediment deposition from rapidly eroding topsoil right around the end of the Mycenean civilization, and another from the latter years of the Roman Empire.

 If archeologists thousands of years from now try the same test, they’ll find yet another eroded topsoil layer at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, the legacy of an agricultural system that put quarterly profits ahead of the relatively modest changes that might have preserved the soil for future generations.

The methods of organic agriculture mentioned earlier could help very significantly with this problem, since those include techniques for preserving existing topsoil, and rebuilding depleted soil at a rate considerably faster than nature’s pace.

To make any kind of difference, though, those methods would have to be deployed on a very broad scale, and then passed down through the difficult years ahead. Lacking that, even where desertification driven by climate change doesn’t make farming impossible, a very large part of today’s North American farm belt will likely be unable to support crops for centuries or millennia to come.

Eventually, the same slow processes that replenished the soil on land scraped bare by the ice age glaciers will do the same thing to land stripped of topsoil by industrial farming, but “eventually” will not come quickly enough to spare our descendants many hungry days.

The same tune in a different key is currently being played across the world’s oceans, and as a result my readers can look forward, in the not too distant future, to tasting the last piece of seafood they will ever eat.

Conservatively managed, the world’s fish stocks could have produced large yields indefinitely, but they were not conservatively managed; where regulation was attempted, political and economic pressure consistently drove catch limits above sustainable levels, and of course cheating was pervasive and the penalties for being caught were merely another cost of doing business.

Fishery after fishery has accordingly collapsed, and the increasingly frantic struggle to feed seven billion hungry mouths is unlikely to leave any of those that remain intact for long.

Worse, all of this is happening in oceans that are being hammered by other aspects of our collective ecological stupidity. Global climate change, by boosting the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere, is acidifying the oceans and causing sweeping shifts in oceanic food chains.

Those shifts involve winners as well as losers; where calcium-shelled diatoms and corals are suffering population declines, seaweeds and algae, which are not so sensitive to changes in the acid-alkaline balance, are thriving on the increased CO2 in the water—but the fish that feed on seaweeds and algae are not the same as those that feed on diatoms and corals, and the resulting changes are whipsawing ocean ecologies.

Close to shore, toxic effluents from human industry and agriculture are also adding to the trouble. The deep oceans, all things considered, offer sparse pickings for most saltwater creatures; the vast majority of ocean life thrives within a few hundred miles of land, where rivers, upwelling zones, and the like provide nutrients in relative abundance.

We’re already seeing serious problems with toxic substances concentrating up through oceanic food chains; unless communities close to the water’s edge respond to rising sea levels with consummate care, hauling every source of toxic chemicals out of reach of the waters, that problem is only going to grow worse.

Different species react differently to this or that toxin; some kind of aquatic ecosystem will emerge and thrive even in the most toxic estuaries of deindustrial North America, but it’s unlikely that those ecosystems will produce anything fit for human beings to eat, and making the attempt may not be particularly good for one’s health.

Over the long run, that, too, will right itself. Bioaccumulated toxins will end up entombed in the muck on the ocean’s floor, providing yet another interesting data point for the archeologists of the far future; food chains and ecosystems will reorganize, quite possibly in very different forms from the ones they have now.

 Changes in water temperature, and potentially in the patterns of ocean currents, will bring unfamiliar species into contact with one another, and living things that survive the deindustrial years in isolated refugia will expand into their former range. These are normal stages in the adaptation of ecosystems to large-scale shocks. Still, those processes of renewal take time, and the deindustrial dark ages ahead of us will be long gone before the seas are restored to biological abundance.

Barren lands and empty seas aren’t the only bitter legacies we’re leaving our descendants, of course.

One of the others has received quite a bit of attention on the apocalyptic end of the peak oil blogosphere for several years now—since March 11, 2011, to be precise, when the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster got under way.

Nuclear power exerts a curious magnetism on the modern mind, drawing it toward extremes in one direction or the other; the wildly unrealistic claims about its limitless potential to power the future that have been made by its supporters are neatly balanced by the wildly unrealistic claims about its limitless potential as a source of human extinction on the other. Negotiating a path between those extremes is not always an easy matter.

In both cases, though, it’s easy enough to clear away at least some of the confusion by turning to documented facts. It so happens, for instance, that no nation on Earth has ever been able to launch or maintain a nuclear power program without huge and continuing subsidies.

Nuclear power never pays for itself; absent a steady stream of government handouts, it doesn’t make enough economic sense to attract enough private investment to cover its costs, much less meet the huge and so far unmet expenses of nuclear waste storage; and in the great majority of cases, the motive behind the program, and the subsidies, is pretty clearly the desire of the local government to arm itself with nuclear weapons at any cost.

Thus the tired fantasy of cheap, abundant nuclear power needs to be buried alongside the Eisenhower-era propagandists who dreamed it up in the first place.

It also happens, of course, that there have been quite a few catastrophic nuclear accidents since the dawn of the atomic age just over seventy years ago, especially but not only in the former Soviet Union. Thus it’s no secret what the consequences are when a reactor melts down, or when mismanaged nuclear waste storage facilities catch fire and spew radioactive smoke across the countryside.

What results is an unusually dangerous industrial accident, on a par with the sudden collapse of a hydroelectric dam or a chemical plant explosion that sends toxic gases drifting into a populated area; it differs from these mostly in that the contamination left behind by certain nuclear accidents remains dangerous for many years after it comes drifting down from the sky.

There are currently 69 operational nuclear power plants scattered unevenly across the face of North America, with 127 reactors among them; there are also 48 research reactors, most of them much smaller and less vulnerable to meltdown than the power plant reactors.

Most North American nuclear power plants store spent fuel rods in pools of cooling water onsite, since the spent rods continue to give off heat and radiation and there’s no long term storage for high-level nuclear waste.

Neither a reactor nor a fuel rod storage pool can be left untended for long without serious trouble, and a great many things—including natural disasters and human stupidity—can push them over into meltdown, in the case of reactors, or conflagration, in the case of spent fuel rods.

In either case, or both, you’ll get a plume of toxic, highly radioactive smoke drifting in the wind, and a great many people immediately downwind will die quickly or slowly, depending on the details and the dose.

It’s entirely reasonable to predict that this is going to happen to some of those 175 reactors. In a world racked by climate change, resource depletion, economic disintegration, political and social chaos, mass movements of populations, and the other normal features of the decline and fall of a civilization and the coming of a dark age, the short straw is going to be drawn sooner or later, and serious nuclear disasters are going to happen.

That doesn’t justify the claim that every one of those reactors is going to melt down catastrophically, every one of the spent-fuel storage facilities is going to catch fire, and so on—though of course that claim does make for more colorful rhetoric.

In the real world, for reasons I’ll be discussing further in this series of posts, we don’t face the kind of sudden collapse that could make all the lights go out at once. Some nations, regions, and local areas within regions will slide faster than others, or be deliberately sacrificed so that resources of one kind or another can be used somewhere else.

As long as governments retain any kind of power at all, keeping nuclear facilities from adding to the ongoing list of disasters will be high on their agendas; shutting down reactors that are no longer safe to operate is one step they can certainly do, and so is hauling spent fuel rods out of the pools and putting them somewhere less immediately vulnerable.

It’s probably a safe bet that the further we go along the arc of decline and fall, the further these decommissioning exercises will stray from the optimum.

I can all too easily imagine fuel rods being hauled out of their pools by condemned criminals or political prisoners, loaded on flatbed rail cars, taken to some desolate corner of the expanding western deserts, and tipped one at a time into trenches dug in the desert soil, then covered over with a few meters of dirt and left to the elements. Sooner or later the radionuclides will leak out, and that desolate place will become even more desolate, a place of rumors and legends where those who go don’t come back.

Meanwhile, the reactors and spent-fuel pools that don’t get shut down even in so cavalier a fashion will become the focal points of dead zones of a slightly different kind. The facilities themselves will be off limits for some thousands of years, and the invisible footprints left behind by the plumes of smoke and dust will be dangerous for centuries.

The vagaries of deposition and erosion are impossible to predict; in areas downwind from Chernobyl or some of the less famous Soviet nuclear accidents, one piece of overgrown former farmland may be relatively safe while another a quarter hour’s walk away may still set a Geiger counter clicking at way-beyond-safe rates.

Here I imagine cow skulls on poles, or some such traditional marker, warning the unwary that they stand on the edge of accursed ground.

It’s important to keep in mind that not all the accursed ground in deindustrial North America will be the result of nuclear accidents. There are already areas on the continent so heavily contaminated with toxic pollutants of less glow-in-the-dark varieties that anyone who attempts to grow food or drink the water there can count on a short life and a wretched death.

As the industrial system spirals toward its end, and those environmental protections that haven’t been gutted already get flung aside in the frantic quest to keep the system going just a little bit longer, spills and other industrial accidents are very likely to become a good deal more common than they are already.

There are methods of soil and ecosystem bioremediation that can be done with very simple technologies—for example, plants that concentrate toxic metals in their tissues so it can be hauled away to a less dangerous site, and fungi that break down organic toxins—but if they’re to do any good at all, these will have to be preserved and deployed in the teeth of massive social changes and equally massive hardships.

Lacking that, and it’s a considerable gamble at this point, the North America of the future will be spotted with areas where birth defects are a common cause of infant mortality and it will be rare to see anyone over the age of forty or so without the telltale signs of cancer.

There’s a bitter irony in the fact that cancer, a relatively rare disease a century and a half ago—most childhood cancers in particular were so rare that individual cases were written up in medical journals —has become the signature disease of industrial society, expanding its occurrence and death toll in lockstep with our mindless dumping of chemical toxins and radioactive waste into the environment. What, after all, is cancer? A disease of uncontrolled growth.

I sometimes wonder if our descendants in the deindustrial world will appreciate that irony. One way or another, I have no doubt that they’ll have their own opinions about the bitter legacy we’re leaving them. Late at night, when sleep is far away, I sometimes remember Ernest Thompson Seton’s heartrending 1927 prose poem “A Lament,” in which he recalled the beauty of the wild West he had known and the desolation of barbed wire and bleached bones he had seen it become.

He projected the same curve of devastation forward until it rebounded on its perpetrators—yes, that would be us—and imagined the voyagers of some other nation landing centuries from now at the ruins of Manhattan, and slowly piecing together the story of a vanished people:

Their chiefs and wiser ones shall know
That here was a wastrel race, cruel and sordid,
Weighed and found wanting,
Once mighty but forgotten now.
And on our last remembrance stone,
These wiser ones will write of us:
They desolated their heritage,
They wrote their own doom.

I suspect, though, that our descendants will put things in language a good deal sharper than this. As they think back on the people of the 20th and early 21st centuries who gave them the barren soil and ravaged fisheries, the chaotic weather and rising oceans, the poisoned land and water, the birth defects and cancers that embitter their lives, how will they remember us?

 I think I know. I think we will be the orcs and Nazgûl of their legends, the collective Satan of their mythology, the ancient race who ravaged the earth and everything on it so they could enjoy lives of wretched excess at the future’s expense. They will remember us as evil incarnate—and from their perspective, it’s by no means easy to dispute that judgment.

See also:
Dark Age America: The Rising Oceans
Dark Age America: Climate