25 April, 2007

True Wealth

More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly. Woody Allen

The recent pet food contamination debacle holds some lessons for Americans (in fact, all citizens of 1st and 2nd world countries). Over the last few years, I have been more and more concerned with our cavalier attitude towards ‘outsourcing’ so much of our food supply. I look back to the 1970’s when the oil cartel’s embargo grabbed America around the throat and we lined up on even and odd days to fill our cars. It wasn’t all that hard, but it wasn’t pleasant or convenient. Now, imagine that same scenario with food. How willing are we to line up on even and odd days to get milk, chicken, or other edibles?

The pet food poisoning (which may spill over into the human food supply as the whole fiasco unfolds) reveals how vulnerable we are to foreign values – here, it appears that Chinese producers purposely contaminated the wheat gluten in order to raise the protein level as the higher protein level commands a higher price. This is the kind of food adulteration that we have been predominantly free from for the last 100 years or so. It comes as a shock to our sensibilities, but this could only be a warning shot.

Recently a politician in Nevada was reported to have said that the water used in northern Nevada should be diverted to Las Vegas, because, to her, real wealth was in that artificial of all cities gulping gallons of water in the pursuit of pleasure and gambling, while the farmers of northern Nevada should just face up to reality of how replaceable they are.

I don’t know how viable farming in Northern Nevada is, or if it’s sustainable. But I can’t escape my gut reaction of revulsion when someone can imagine ‘real wealth’ in Las Vegas and not in food production. Even knowledge or service economies are built on nothing if there is no food. Even when we eliminate unscrupulous proprietors in our food supplied from overseas, it does little to assure us a safe food supply.

The United States still produces tons of DDT – it is illegal to use it here, but we can still make it and we export it. Where is it used? Why, in the third world countries from which we import our food, that’s where! When we eat fruit out of season (here), that fruit has been brought in (with considerable use of petroleum, I might add) from other climates, sometimes from Mexico, or Central America, or just as often from Chile or other Southern Hemisphere countries where the seasons are opposite to ours. Use of DDT isn’t illegal over much of the rest of the world and the general regulatory climate of pesticides is considerably more relaxed than here.

And just as an aside, DDT and other chemicals used in pest-control, as well as the chemical fertilizers, are all petro-chemicals. This means that these substances are also getting more expensive as the price of oil sky-rockets. Conventional farming gets more and more expensive by the day. Our prices are going up in the supermarket just as they are at the pump. And the extra money isn’t going to the farmer – it’s going to the multi-national companies that control the petroleum supplies – doesn’t it just frost you a wee bit that the mega-corporations that produce gasoline and heating oil netted record profits while we all suffered at the pump with record prices per gallon? But that’s not this rant, that’s a rant of its own.

So… We have been over a barrel with oil. But what would we be over if it were food? Over a flour sack?

True wealth has always been, and will always be the purvey of he who can be self-sufficient in food production. I realize that it would be a fantasy in our current world to attempt to have each be individually responsible for their own personal calories. But, in a future age, if we have run off all the farmers to eke out a living in the employ of the ‘industries’ of Las Vegas, we stand to be the poorer country. And our national security much more compromised than any other event that has occurred.

Our society’s current image of wealth is turned on its head: Wealth is NOT consuming; it is in production. If we were to see aright, the man with a big screen TV would not be seen as wealthy, but poor, if he didn’t have the resource to grow carrots. The Mercedes Benz would be not be a symbol of wealth, but more of ignorance, if that vehicle could not be backed up with some production of tangible utility. You can’t eat a Mercedes Benz or a big screen TV.

We live in a house of cards – and this contaminated wheat gluten proves the future is not safe. Our government’s treatment of farmers has been abysmal and has been a mis-guided and costly payola program that has pretty much relieved America of the family farmer leaving us with a de-populated middle of the country that has taken a tragic toll on all farmers, but especially heinous on the family farmer. We will eventually pay for our callous handling of the very constituency that Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln thought would be the back bone of our democracy. But the worst of it is that missing farmers do not care for chickens and do not have wheat to sell. And missing foodstuffs cannot materialize out of a body armor or an Abrams tank. With a national debt that is soaring and a balance of trade with other countries that is already wonky, our country’s strength and integrity are tentative at best.

We are not a strong country when we can’t feed ourselves. Military might is just as helpless to cure starvation as it has been to insure a safe supply of oil (you don’t REALLY believe we gave a rat’s ass about Saddam or that Iraq had the slightest implication in 9/11 did you?). This is where we are today with millions squandered on military adventures in foreign lands that only bring us grief, insurmountable debt and more fear. And still unable to feed our own population.

There are solutions. I’ll explore that in another entry.


The Worst Hard Time Is A Best Good Read

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan

I was born in Kansas, less than 20 years after the events chronicled by The Worst Hard Time and I have had a difficult time reconciling my childhood memories of fields laden with wheat and corn encircling Sabetha, KS with the horrific scenes ascribed to taking place within 'spitting distance' of my home. This book was a helluva wake up call for me.

The story told by The Worst Hard Time is grim. But the gravity of the tale doesn't weigh in the way Egan tells his tale. Within a few pages, he captivates the reader with a lyrical style of writing that makes several of his paragraphs poetic to read, without which, I doubt if most of us would make it to the end of the book. By the time the third or fourth dust storm has hit, without that poetic telling, most readers would simply turn it off - like any mind-numbingly difficult thing to take in repeated doses.

Egan's telling of our nation's worst ecological disaster riveted me. As a gardener, I have always been fascinated by the soil - so much that I've learned enough about them to teach soils classes; but this story, the story of the hubris and greed of some, coupled with the desperation and fear of others and how those forces colluded to ruin millions of acres of top-soil that bankrupted an entire generation and gutted the population of the Dust Bowl states is more critical to us today than any other part of this country's history. Rarely are we presented with such evidence of the true power of nature to wreck revenge on her rapists.

For me, the compelling point is this: The Dust Bowls of the 1930's were of the greatest calamities to befall our country - as horrific as almost any war we have fought in - certainly more scarring and telling than all wars in our nation's history except possibly the Revolutionary War, The Civil War and WWII. Yet, how many books can you read about The Dust Bowl and how many of us today are conversant in the wound wrecked upon our nation in that not so distant time? For this alone, we could be grateful to Timothy Egan for bringing this subject into the light, but that he has done this in such a compelling and dramatic fashion inspiring a reader to push on for that never-ending 'one more page' makes this book well worth your money and your time.

We need more books like this to tell us our history.