Sustainability Rant, Part I: Canaries in Camouflage

Sustainability Rant is a multipart series from Sylvanaqua Farms about the need for sustainability to become a ubiquitous concern in American life.

Part I: Canaries in Camouflage

Environmentalists aren’t going to save us. Neither will America’s wealth or power.

Let’s examine a few facts:

  • Air quality is decreasing
  • The planet is warming (regardless of the cause, yes, it’s happening)
  • The rivers are polluted and starved of oxygen
  • The oceans are filthy and being precipitously depopulated
  • Land is desertifying at a terrifying clip
  • Storms are intensifying
  • Soil is becoming sterile, then eroding
  • Pollinators are dying
  • Species diversity in plants and animals is vanishing.
  • “Pests” that attack our food supply are getting harder to kill

Take a minute to re-read the list when you’ve slowed down for a moment. When you’re not commuting to work, or arranging play dates, or picking the kids up from soccer practice, or worrying about a deadline, or checking Facebook statuses and Twitter updates, or sending text messages. Read this list after you’ve had five minutes to unplug, to sit down, and to do absolutely nothing. Find a moment in which the stillness lets you hear nothing but the passing of air through your lungs and the beating of your heart – the simple, unconscious things without which your life, as busy and important as it is, would cease in an instant.

Done? Found your center? Good, let’s continue the discussion with some better news.

Here are some things that probably won’t happen in your lifetime:

  • The air gets too poisonous to breathe without machines
  • The planet warms to the extent that few regions are able to grow food
  • The rivers become undrinkable
  • The oceans rise and warm to an extent that changes weather patterns permanently and catastrophically
  • Hurricanes are the size of continents and routinely kill thousands of people, even in developed countries

That’s good news! The bad news, however, is that it’s well within the realm of possibility that these things will happen within the lifetimes of our great grandchildren. If you’re 30 years old and have a child today, the lives of your grandchildren would, more or less, span 60 to 140 years from now. It’s not crazy to think the Earth, even (and perhaps especially) in the developed world, could be utterly uninhabitable in the next century and a half.

Why isn’t that a crazy thought? Because I asked old people.

In the 1940s, my grandfather Ernest could walk into the Potomac River with a big net, scoop it in a long circle around him, and come up with a net full of blue crabs. Oysters and clams were similarly bountiful. And we’re not talking about some idyllic location in the rural upper reaches of the Potomac. My grandfather pulled this stunt in southern Prince George’s County, MD within eyesight of the nation’s capital, where his and my ancestors had similarly fed themselves for at least a thousand years prior.

Seventy years later, the crabs my grandfather ate all summer long for free are now $140 a bushel at the Wharf. The oysters he harvested on God’s dime to accompany pre-hipster PBR while he and his friends played Tonk now sell for nearly $30 a dozen at Hank’s Oyster Bar. It took just seven decades of overfishing and environmental degradation to turn what was once a staple meat along the Potomac into a delicacy that even bespoke-suited K Street lobbyists can’t afford eat everyday.

You don’t have to go back to World War II to see this kind of difference. Ten years ago, my father-in-law’s fishing trip on the lower Potomac yielded an unbelievable catch of stripers, croaker, spot, and perch. Last month’s fishing trip yielded literally nothing that could be kept. Vegans and animal rights activists bemoan the existence of hunters and fishermen, but the former would do well to recognize the latter as a very useful component of the sustainability machine: they are the camouflaged canaries in the coalmine of environmental sustainability. And they’re not singing.

If you ask any seasoned hunter of fisher(wo)man how their last outing was compared with a decade or two ago, it’ll probably elicit a despondent grunt. Unless, of course, that person is a deer hunter. Deer populations are exploding in the east as the animals enjoy an environment utterly devoid of predators, unless you count Toyotas. Couple that with habitat being continually compressed by urban sprawl, and you wind up with deer hunts that are like turkey shoots, while the actual turkey shoots turn up nothing.

Moral concerns about game sports aside, what is not debatable is that “sportsmen” are the first people to really notice when something is off in the natural world. They notice it even before farmers because, unlike farmers, sportsmen harvest their food from animals whose fate is directly pegged to that of their immediate environment. As that environment thrives or degrades, so too does the animal live or die, and that right soon.

In farming – even pasture-based farming – things aren’t so elastic. The pastured poultry farmer brags about his phalanx of corn-fed broilers injecting organic nutrients and building topsoil while staying mum on the 500 acre monocrop corn field that feeds those chickens while decimating the organic life in, on, and above the soil which, incidentally, is eroding. It’ll take awhile, perhaps centuries, but ultimately the corn monocrop will fail (either by refusing to grow or becoming impossibly expensive) and thereby starve the chickens on that pasture.*

Whereas the Rockfish succumbs to environmental degradation almost immediately, the pastured chicken endures for a hundred years, but only by transferring the environmental damage to a slowly-dying cornfield. Thus will environmental degradation spare us, only to starve our great-grandchildren. Toby Keith has the luxury to wax myopic about “both ends of the ozone burnin’, funny how the world keeps turnin’,” but his great-granddaughter won’t. She’ll be too busy battling skin cancer because her great -granddaddy didn’t give a shit.

Over the next 140 years and through the lives of your great-grandkids, as the population and demand for resources increase at a greater-than-linear pace, we can only expect the stories of my grandfather and father-in-law to accelerate in severity. We can also expect the stories to bleed out of the realm of outdoor recreation and into the Earthly Trinity that keeps us alive: air, water, and food. And be warned, America: neither our money, nor our power, nor an elite cadre of environmentalists, will save us.

Unless, of course, we change the way we use our money, power, and environmentalists…

*Incidentally, this is why Sylvanaqua made the strategic decision to move from pasture systems to permaculture systems.

Part II of this series will be released on December 9, 2013.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms


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