Drinking the Great Plains dry: a metaphor for all that’s wrong with us. And then, the good news!

Posted December 2nd, 2011 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Drinking the Great Plains dry: a metaphor for all that’s wrong with us. And then, the good news!

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

So here’s a good one with which to start off. The topic of the High Plains (or Ogallala) aquifer is something I bring to most of my talks – this singular source of water for 8 states of the Great Plains – because it is such a fine example of ecological overshoot and the self-destructive nature of our human forms of ‘development.’ Yesterday, the NY Times had a guest Op-Ed that I will keep in a file as a new reference regarding what’s coming: Running Dry on the Great Plains, by Julene Blair.

High Plains aquifer depletion, USGS 2007

Here she writes about how big farmers have become their own worst enemies, using modes of irrigation and unsustainable large-scale industrial farming that has sunk so many straws into that aquifer that, incredibly, they are likely to drain it beyond usage over this century. Meanwhile, they have also poisoned it with their chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Thus do we keep chopping away at the foundations of our own lives. A dark story, but it could also be something else. It could be one of those moments of reawakening when US Americans rediscover that we actually do exist as part of the ecosystems of the planet.

And what is the problem, really? Why does this severe example of overshoot continue despite dire warnings over the past many years about the Ogallala? She writes:

Why haven’t viable environmental groups formed to protect the Ogallala? Because corn contributes so much to the economy that its reign is seldom questioned. Federal subsidy payments to corn growers and the federal mandate to produce ethanol underwrite the waste and pollution.

Big powerful players here. Just try to get the liberal Sen. Harkin to oppose the big corn growers of Iowa when his political career is at stake! It’s the corn growers and the soy growers, and it’s Cargill and Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midlands, and it’s the oil companies that make the fertilizers, and it’s the industrial livestock farms that buy the tainted feed that ends up in our meat and poultry, and truckers and railroad companies – and you just try to put a brake on all those interests with so much at stake!

And the developers feeding all that new development going on in Texas and Oklahoma – Texas!! where the wells and rivers are going dry, the land is parched and crusted from drought and aridification, where developers, ranchers, and oil companies are still sticking more straws into the aquifer and sucking it out as if this glass has no bottom.

It has a bottom.

Meanwhile, folks like Gov. Perry have their eyes on the Great Lakes and big water pipelines. Why not? They love pipelines in Texas!! So we can bow down and give thanks every day here in the Upper Midwest that the Great Lakes Basin Compact was passed, signed, and ratified (by George Bush, no less – it was an election year), and so Rick Perry can’t have our water without permission of the 8 Great Lakes states, 2 provinces of Canada, and the Congress.

..in some areas of Kansas and Texas, farmers can no longer pump enough to water their crops. If current withdrawal rates continue, usable water in most areas will be gone by the end of this century.

The future is now. In southern areas of the aquifer, it has very much arrived. The aquifer is running dry, the water that’s in it is becoming increasingly contaminated – and now TransCanada, the State of Texas, and Sec. of State Hillary Clinton (maybe Obama, not clear yet) want to put a crude oil pipeline right through the plains states, from North Dakota, where one of the biggest oil booms in US history is now underway, to the Gulf of Mexico, already grievously wounded by oil, nitrogen, and other pollutants that are destroying its ecosystem.

Metaphor for an entire approach to existence, to an order humans have forced upon the planet, to an economic system, and to a way in which humans have separated themselves psychologically and spiritually from the intimate, inescapable relationships in which we exist – our relationships within the biosphere and atmosphere in which we live. Has there ever been so self-destructive and delusional a species as this one?

Now for some good news – because despite this heavy stuff, there is always good news to share. It’s not completely unrelated, either, since industrial agriculture is part of the theme here.

There are other kinds of farmers, and there are beginning to be some serious movements emerging from them. You know the usual suspects – organic farmers, private conventional farmers returning to old healthier practices, Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), farmers markets, food co-ops, and the Slow Food movement.

And the Greenhorns – one of my favorites. I don’t even know these folks personally, but I am crazy about their website. And it was from an email alert from them that I learned that this Sunday, farmers are going to Occupy Wall Street. If you are in the NYC area, think about joining them as they make their demands for food justice:

the farmers march, a gathering of farmers, community gardeners, food activists, and occupiers for dialogue, solidarity, and solutions to corporate control of our food system.”

You know, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. This week we discovered that there are high levels of arsenic in commercial apple juices, and this presented an opportunity for other critics of this beverage to remind us that apple juice also has one of the highest sugar contents of any drink given to kids, more than many sodas!

I am reminded that it really matters how we eat, where we buy our food, what kind of food system we support when we go grocery shopping. It really matters that we become food literate, that we not be defensive when we discover something we like is bad for us, for the earth, for our kids, but are prepared to act in a sane way and stop the harm that we do when we take in these foods or support the corporate economy that makes them and puts them on store shelves.

These farmers coming to NYC need as much help as they can get in the form of creating the kind of economy in which they can flourish. Agriculture has become a central focal point of our struggle over the future of life on this planet, a central issue in the crisis of ecological overshoot. The High Plains aquifer has become, sadly, a sad and frightening reminder of what it means when we put our short-term interests ahead of the our long-term ability to survive, to live with abundance now in a way that assures abundance and health for future generations.

These farmers remind us that there is another possibility. We can begin to live into that possibility right now by the choices we make each day from here on out. What could matter more in any case than the quality of the water and food we take into our bodies? What could matter more than that we make sure that there is good water to drink and good food to eat now and for the thousands of generations still to come?




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