In Orick, California, there is a giant wooden peanut – over twelve feet long, six feet tall and weighing nine tons – carved from a single chunk of old-growth redwood. It was sculpted by local loggers in 1978, during the Carter administration, and brought to Washington, D.C., to protest the proposed expansion of Redwood National Park. Their message: “It may be peanuts to you, but it’s jobs to us.” To the loggers’ chagrin, the peanut was ignored and the Park expanded anyway, removing 48,000 acres from the reach of their axes. Now the rough-hewn sculpture sits unceremoniously at the south end of town, steadily wearing away under the effects of vandalism and the elements. No plaque tells its story; you have to know what you’re looking for, and even what you’re looking at.
In the Spring of 2014, my farming partner and I unexpectedly lost our lease on a piece of land we were planning to farm. This was a harsh blow that simultaneously took away our livelihood and made us homeless. Not knowing what else to do with our unexpected free time, we hit the road in a 1985 Toyota van (aka a “lunar lander”) to go camping and lick our wounds. Both of us are keen, educated observers and genuine lovers of plants, animals and nature so a trip like this was a pilgrimage of sorts. We hoped it would bring us some joy. And it did; the quietude of nature being a definite balm for the noise of human drama.
But the condition of the environment being what it is, we were also presented with many a sad revelation. Our travels took us on a zig-zaggy route from Port Townsend, Washington, in the north, to Bakersfield, California, in the south, to Austin, Nevada, in the east, and to – yes – Orick, California, in the west. We had read about the story of the giant peanut there, so we made a point of locating it when we passed through.
The sculpture, despite its size and besides its deterioration, is pretty pathetic. It is the embodiment of a short-sighted viewpoint one could call, “Jobs ü ber alles“: Jobs over trees, jobs over rivers, jobs over animals, jobs over human health. Jobs over everything, really. This viewpoint reigns supreme all along the conventional political spectrum in the U.S.A., from right to left, from libertarian to liberal, from CEO to union worker. Only a handful of radicals stand outside, seeing the wider perspective. Over the years, many well-meaning thinkers and activists have genuinely sought to create a magic balance between Jobs and the Environment (and many political and corporate entities have claimed to be providing one) but it has remained elusive because – as our travels showed to us – that magic balance is an impossible dream. Capitalism’s imperative “growth” is antithetical to the Environment’s essential health.
Everywhere we journeyed in 2014, we saw the ravaged landscapes left behind by the pursuit of Jobs: cut forests, drained wetlands, dammed rivers, trampled deserts and mined hills. But this destruction is not the whole story. What we also saw everywhere – during what turned out to be the hottest summer on record – was the other shoe dropping from the decades and decades of this destruction: Climate Change.
From the Olympic Peninsula in Washington to the southern Sierras in California, the forests of the Western U.S.A. have been relentlessly hammered. Of the old growth that existed in these areas before the European invasion, less than 10% remains. For particular species, the number is even worse: Over 96% of the coastal Redwoods have been cut. As if this isn’t bad enough, the logging of old growth is not a legacy of the past; it continues to this day.
The patches of old growth trees that remain are besieged islands. In most forested landscapes, all you can see from horizon to horizon are tree farms. We camped in some old growth near Oregon’s Mt. Hood that I first visited when an active tree sit guarded the site from the threat of logging. In what is a rare story, the forest activists’ campaign eventually won, and the timber sale was cancelled. It is one of my favorite spots in the world. Just sitting among a group of such big, tall, old trees is awe-inspiring. And, being off the beaten path and not marked on any sight-seeing maps, you can find solitude there. Of the dozen times I’ve camped there since it was saved, I’ve only run into somebody else once.
But the groves there are not large: the 167 acres of the former sale are broken into 18 units that are mostly non-contiguous. That’s a mere 1/4 of a square mile. You can’t even get lost in such small sections of forest. Just outside their well-defined boundaries the stumps and tiny trees begin. Though active logging has not occurred in the area for at least 20 years, the groves of old growth are decreasing in size anyway; the wind takes out individuals on the over-exposed edges. In the decade I have been visiting, I have seen the ground in some areas transformed from being mostly open to being an impenetrable clutter of enormous logs.
The tourist doesn’t see past the “idiot strip” – the buffer of trees along the road screening the clear-cuts from immediate view – but we were looking more carefully, and we couldn’t miss what’s really going on: a vast patchwork laid out with straight-lines and right-angles, all the trees a uniform age in each section. Satellite photos show the situation vividly.
This is “forest management” as prescribed by the National Forest Service, which – as most people don’t know – is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The tree are being farmed the way any other crop is farmed: by wiping out the endemic ecosystem with machinery and chemicals, breaking it up into countless individual parcels and then maintaining that state of fragmentation through continual disruption.
Most people don’t think of Agriculture as being destructive to the environment. After all, compared to the paved density of the city, farm fields are green and open and look, well, “natural”. But this is hardly the case. Our trip took us through California’s Central Valley, from Red Bluff to Bakersfield, and, frankly, I was shocked. The completeness with which the native landscape has been removed and is intensely managed for agriculture – leaving no room for anything else – was not something I had expected.
The orchards in particular caught my attention. On either side of the I-5 or the 99, for miles at a time, ruler-straight rows of trees stretched into the distance, as far as the eye could see. Every tree was pruned to the same shape, to better allow machine-assisted harvesting. The ground below was absolutely clear of any vegetation whatsoever. The only way to keep out weeds like that in an orchard is with herbicides; the trees’ roots are too close to the surface to till under unwanted vegetation as is done in Organic agriculture. This dead-zone reached the fence along the freeway. On the smaller roads it came right up to the shoulder.
The fields of grape vines and row crops were kept up the same way, all in huge blocks. So for long stretches of road, we would see only one species of plant. We wondered what the native flora of the area might be; we had few clues. I was taken aback, realizing that there’s more diversity of plant life in the cracks in the sidewalk in the city of Sacramento than there is in the fields of the Sacramento Valley!
Of course it’s not just plants that have been eradicated from farmland, but animals, too. Where are the herd animals who grazed when there were grasslands? Where are the predators who hunted them? Where are the birds and amphibians from when there were wetlands? Where are the butterflies and insects? Rachel Carson warned us over fifty years ago that we were risking a “silent spring”. Well, that full dead dearth of wild voices is nearly upon us, replaced by the growl of machinery, in a landscape scraped nearly clean of habitat, but the tourist exclaims, “I love driving out to wine country on the weekends!”
Some people might respond to this by saying, “Well, we have to eat, don’t we?” And of course we do, but this style of agriculture is not the only one available to us. A study sponsored by the U.N. found that small-scale agriculture of mixed crops and using no pesticides produces more food, acre-for-acre, than large-scale monoculture . Historically, the farming methods used by the original human inhabitants of the Americas were, for the most part, far less destructive and successfully fed many millions of people. (For a good survey of some of these, see: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus.)
Big Ag, as exemplified in the Sacramento Valley (and in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and across the entire Midwest), is used so extensively not because it is the best way to feed people but because it makes money in the short-term. Not figured in are the costs of the long-term effects: topsoil degradation, aquifer depletion, air pollution, species extinction and Climate Change. Mainstream economists refers to such things as “externalities”. “’External’ to what?” one might rightly ask. Answer: to the standard theoretical models and their accompanying equations. Not, obviously, to the much less abstract thing often referred to as “the Real World”.
City, farm and forest make up only part of the Western landscape – much of it is arid, seemingly empty land. Our journey also took us through sagebrush steppe, salt flat and high desert. In Kernville (near Bakersfield in southern California) we visited my farming partner’s brother, a wildland firefighter stationed there that season. He and other military vets on the crew referred to the area as “Little Afghanistan” due to the similar appearance of the scrubby, treeless hills.
We drove up into those hills looking for an out-of-the-way place to camp. We found one at the opening of a water-cut ravine at just under 6000’ elevation, on a little spur road. A small but vigorous stream flowed noisily over rocks, under logs and among boulders, alternately cascading down waterfalls and collecting in pools. A few trees, mostly pines and a few cedars, huddled at the mouth of the ravine, sheltering a small sandy bank. Quite the lovely spot, marred by just one thing: cow manure. Here we were, out on public land, in what could be called the-middle-of-nowhere, but someone was running cattle – recently from the look of the still-drying pies. The manure was all along the bank and in – actually in – the watercourse. So we couldn’t drink right from the stream, which was disappointing, and even filtering it seemed sketchy.
Most people in this day and age have never drunk directly from a stream, so don’t know what they’re missing, but it is one of the great joys in life when you can find one that’s clean enough. I myself have been lucky to locate a few. This is not merely pleasure, but also a return to something that was once a central, daily activity for humans. Can it be that always drinking water that is piped or bottled first has no effect at all on us? I find that hard to believe, especially when I am bringing my cupped hands to my mouth and savoring such fresh liveliness. This is the kind of act that, when added up with countless other right-from-the-source acts, made for our ancestors an intimate relationship with their environment, sharply contrasted with the contemporary us-vs.-them view of nature.
But you can’t drink from a watercourse that’s got cow shit it in, and that’s what you’ll find across most of the arid West. Ranching rules there, on 70% of public lands. 70%! Cattle tend to gravitate to the wettest places they can find, but riparian zones are a very small part of the arid landscape – making up less than 3% of the area of the Great Basin, for example – so the damage is greatest to the places that are most vital. Cattle are quite harmful to these ecosystems because their behavior is alien there; no analogous species existed previous to their introduction, so the flora and fauna are not adapted to deal with them. The result is habitat destruction and the attendant decline of native species, which includes many traditional food plants of the Indians.
Additionally, fences disrupt migration patterns of wild animals, endemic predators such as the wolf are hunted nearly to extinction, and water is diverted (and often wasted) leaving less for the creatures who depended on it previously. These effects are taking place over literally millions of acres, but the damage is invisible to most people. Who would even know, for example, what a healthy sage-brush steppe looks like anymore? Ungrazed examples are as rare as old-growth forest.
Scientists say it’s tricky to attribute a particular weather event like a drought or “super storm” to Climate Change. However, an excellent analogy for understanding how Climate Change increases the probability of such events was presented in a 2012 article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, and has since become well-known: The Baseball Player on Steroids analogy . Imagine that a baseball player starts taking steroids and hits 20% more home runs after that. While it might be impossible to know if any particular home run can be attributed to his steroid use, the increase in home runs is undeniable and we can say that the probability of his hitting home runs has increased by 20%. s
Climate Change works in a similar way. The global rise in temperature is analogous to the baseball player’s steroid use and has increased the probability of extreme weather events. Though pinpointing a particular event to Climate Change might be impossible, the increase in extreme events is undeniable, and we can say that the probability of such events has increased.
It is with that caveat that I mention some of the extremes and abnormalities that we witnessed in 2014:
- Smoke was omnipresent in the skies of southern Oregon, from Ashland to Grants Pass to Cave Junction and all places between, high and low, all summer long. Sunsets were stained red, moonrises orange. The “Fire Danger” signs posted at the borders of the National Forests were all set to “EXTREME”.
- I started this essay in October in southern California while sitting on the sandy shore of the Kern River. Well-known for years as a great place to whitewater raft, the flow is now too low. The area has been experiencing a drought for ten years. A camper who has been coming there every summer for years pointed out that our riverside tent-site had always been underwater in the past. The flow has gotten so low that you can easily wade across, and certainly can’t raft.
- In the same area, there have been more frequent sightings of bears close to town and along the roads. Searching for food, they are coming down from the drought-stricken hills. This behavior puts them in increased danger of being hit by cars or attacked by humans.
- The city water in Harbor, Oregon, was unsafe to drink when we visited in September because of salt contamination. With lack of rain, the level of the river had dropped and was becoming inundated by the sea at its lower reaches, where the intake pipes were located. Water trucks were providing free fill-ups for people who brought their own containers. Moving the intake pipes would be a costly operation and the community hoped to avoid that.
- Nearly every lake we saw was low, and some of them — Lake Pillsbury and Lake Shasta — were drastically so. We saw more boat docks stranded on dry land than jutting out into the water.
- Camping at Lake Pillsbury in October, we were entranced by the vocalizations of the Elk. The bellows of the bulls and the squeaks of the cows sound almost like whale song. But the park ranger told us it was unheard of for the bulls to still be in the area that late in the year. She wondered about this unusual behavior.
- We saw dead and dying Madrone trees all along the Northern California coast and up into Southern Oregon. On some slopes, you could identify all the Madrones at a distance by picking out the dead trees. We couldn’t find anyone who knew the cause.
Fragmented forests on fire from a climate over-heated from cutting too many trees. Fires burning hotter for having been suppressed for decades. Rivers and lakes drying up. Animals changing their habits. Whole ecosystems withering and losing their resiliency. Climate Change is a big game changer, but not many people seem to be noticing that yet.
Government, Media & Lies
We picked up the local newspapers when we passed through human habitations between camping spots. The Internet Age has not made newspapers entirely irrelevant yet – especially in small towns and little cities – and we were able to glean some flavor of the character and priorities of an area. Every paper in Oregon and northern California was covering the summer’s wildfires, usually front-page and above the fold, enumerating the acres engulfed, structures burned and percentage of the fire contained. In grocery check-out lines and at gas stations, the fires and the weather were prime topics (usually with a wish for rain).
But only rarely – in person or in print – was the connection made between the fires and Climate Change. Much more common are variations on the same old “Jobs” refrain. Consider this pair of articles from the Sept. 20th edition of Curry [County, Oregon] Coastal Pilot, both penned by Jane Stebbins, a staff writer for the paper:
Senate to decide forest bill
For the third time, the U.S. House of Representatives has approved a forestry bill penned by Rep Greg Walden (R), crafted to create jobs in the woods, improve forest health, reduce the risk of wildfire and generate funds for local communities….
[Claimed Walden:] “The legislation in this package… would allow us to put people back to work in the woods, reduce fires and produce revenue for schools, teachers, sheriffs and sheriffs’ deputies, search and rescue – for all these basis services that matter in rural communities across the West.”
…HR 1526 could generate as much as $90 million a year for struggling rural Oregon counties by reopening the forest to logging….
“You want to do something about poverty? Create a job!” Walden told the House. “You want to get America back on track? …We’ll create jobs, generate revenue, and have positive cash flow in this country for once. It doesn’t have to be this way.” [my emphasis]
I don’t know how many of Walden’s claims are sincere but are mis-educated (with “forest health” being the top candidate for being a just plain lie) but his final words, bolded, are definitely true. It doesn’t have to be this way. Oregonians could look around at the wreckage of the state’s ecosystems and see that enough is enough – that Oregon can no longer afford to view itself as a region rich with “resources” that can be exchanged for lucre. Not if anything resembling “health” is ever to be brought back to the land and waters, and hence to humans.
Stebbins had a related article on the same page of that day’s paper:
County eyeing national lands issue
Curry County commissioners are keeping an eye on Arizona and Utah, where legislators are trying to get the federal government to relinquish national lands to the states for use as they see fit.
The issue has been increasingly in the news since the national government has ended federal timber payments to half of Oregon’s counties and other counties throughout the West realize the vast majority of the lands aren’t paying for themselves [my emphasis].
…[In Utah], the BLM is set to auction off 27 parcels totaling 29,400 acres near the Green and White rivers for oil and gas leasing. Recently, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance filed an official protest in an effort to halt the lease operation on grounds that the land possesses wilderness qualities.
But locking up more land as protected wilderness means less control the state has over those lands – and less money it might be able to garner otherwise….
In its heyday, Curry County received more than $6 million from the federal government – funds it paid in lieu of a percentage of tax revenue the county would have garnered had environmentalists not shut down the forests to timber harvests in the 1990s.
Of course, the veracity of Stebbins’ characterization of the 1990s as a time when the forests were “shut down” to timber harvests could be challenged by another narrative, in which Clinton’s Northwest Forest Plan and the notorious “Salvage Rider” put thousands of acres of old growth trees on the chopping block, leading to the outburst of tree-sitting and other Eco-defense that marked the late 1990s and early 2000, but that’s nit-picking at this late date, with the forests burning, the oceans acidifying, and water tables drying up.
More to the point is the fact that we can no longer afford the ridiculous viewpoint that the Earth needs to “pay for itself”, that it is a collection of resources from which to “garner” (Stebbins uses this verb twice) money – a viewpoint that is only too obviously rooted in the “dominion” over all living things granted to Adam, and hence all of humanity, in the Book of Genesis by “the Lord”. Gore Vidal rightly described the Old Testament as being made up of “brutal Bronze Age books”, and the world’s Jews, Christians and Muslims need to make it a priority to modernize their beliefs, or soon enough all their temples, churches and mosques will stand empty on a planet become inhospitable for human habitation.
Is such a possibility a shrill, Chicken Little exaggeration? Not at all. According to a report by the Global Carbon Project, carbon emissions in 2013 continued to increase at a “worst-case scenario” rate. This is a rate of emissions that will have devastating effects to life on the planet according to the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is considered overly conservative and hopeful to many in Climate Change circles. As stated by robertscribbler , in his blog entry discussing this report: “At the current pace of emission, it will take less than 30 years to lock in a 550ppm CO2 equivalent value – enough to melt all the ice on Earth and to raise temperatures by between 5 and 6 degrees Celsius [9-10.8 degrees F] long term.” Which makes a planet that’s no longer suitable for humans and for many (even most?) other living beings.
Not only small-town newspapers are missing the point, of course. Just about every outlet in the entire USA media establishment is guilty, almost all of the time. As we traveled south, we came within the wide circulatory range of the San Francisco Chronicle, and picked up the Sept. 24th edition, which had a front-page article discussing “renewable” energy:
State’s deserts seen as sites for huge new plants
Industrial-scale solar, wind and geothermal projects could be built within a few miles of national parks in the California desert as part of the Obama and Brown administrations’ efforts to combat climate change, under a mammoth plan released by federal and state officials Tuesday.
Construction of the plants, many of which could cover several square miles, would drastically alter desert vistas near national parks and wilderness areas, according to a draft [of the plan]…. But that would be offset by the climate-change benefits of allowing large solar and wind energy plants on more than 2 million acres of the Mojave Desert, the report said.
Energy plants covering several square miles are obviously going to affect more than “vistas”. Wind farms are notorious for killing birds by the thousands. Construction of anything that large is going to make mincemeat of the creatures living there, plant, animal, etc. The same article mentions the 5.4 square mile Ivanpah solar plant in the Mojave Desert, where “[m]any more desert tortoises were discovered on the site than were anticipated, and problems have emerged with birds being incinerated when they fly in the path of the concentrated solar radiation.” Birds being incinerated? That’s horrific! And this is how we are going to mitigate Climate Change? By running heedless over any and every other living thing?
The article quoted one person who is calling bullshit on the plan:
Kevin Emmerich, a former Death Valley park ranger who founded the watchdog site Basin and Range Watch , said officials are “calling this a conservation plan while they are planning on fragmenting up the large remaining sections of the California desert into ‘development zones,’ which ultimately translates to a net loss of desert habitat.”
Emmerich said planners have refused to consider roof-top solar and other smaller-scale projects that “would actually produce energy at the point of use without transmission loss and save habitat.”
Kudos to Emmerich! However, the SF Chronicle article goes on to end with a fundamental and fundamentally dangerous lie:
But Mark Tholke, a vice president at EDF Renewables, an energy company that has built plants in the desert, said rooftop solar is inadequate to address climate change.
“Many of us feel a real urgency to get as many (plants) up and running as possible, as soon as possible,” Tholke said. To slow climate change, he said, “we need to do a lot more than rooftop and distributed generation. We need cost-effective, large projects.”
False. In actuality, what “we need to do” to slow Climate Change is a lot less of everything. This means small projects that re-localize our means of living, include not just energy, but also food, medicine and shelter.
We Must Choose the Environment over Jobs
The days of the massive power plant, the 2500 mile salad, the factory-produced pharmaceutical, and the car-centric megalopolis must end. So, too, must go that holiest of holy grails: “Jobs”. Jobs provide people with money; the more money circulates, the more the economy grows; the more the economy grows, the more destruction is meted out on the Earth. Yet, favoring a raise in the minimum wage is considered “progressive”. Typical was this article, from the Mail Tribune (“Southern Oregon’s News Source”, based in Jackson County), Sept. 22, reprinted from Dallas Morning News under heading of “Other Views”:
Congress should pass wage hike
A vibrant economy requires consumers who are able to earn enough to provide for their families as well as employers who are able to make a profit…. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that phasing in a federal minimum wage hike would bolster the income of 27.8 million workers, expand GDP by about $22 billion, add 85,000 jobs and most benefit adults struggling in $8 and $9 hourly jobs, who also would probably receive a wage hike. About 75% of Americans, including 58% of Republicans, support increasing the federal minimum wage.
The folks in Orick had it wrong in the Carter administration, and supporters of a higher minimum wage have it wrong now too. We can’t even afford to, as the saying goes, “work for peanuts” – that’s paying too much. What needs to happen instead? Simply put, business-as-usual techno-industrial society as we know it must be brought to a screeching halt. No more growth. No more debt. No more jobs. The old cliché of a mugger’s threat sums up well the choice before us in these times: “Your money or your life”.
But if I were to make a bet, I’d put my dollar on “money”.