January 26th, 2015
You Can’t Get There From Here
Resilience may on the verge of dethroning “sustainable” as the most overused/misunderstood term of our age, but I tend to think that “paradox” isn’t getting its due. The times, as Dylan once sang, may be a-changin’, but what it looks like isn’t so much the booting of old regimes as the stacking of new ones on top of the old (and if you need proof of that, Dylan’s hand-scrawled lyrics sold at auction to a hedge fund manager for almost half a million bucks.) Exhilarating, to be sure, but it makes a mess of coherence.
Take for instance, the hard-charging entrepreneurs of Beyond Beef. Correctly recognizing that the production of meat is a climate change cardinal sin, they’re revisiting fake meat and seem to be on the verge of leapfrogging the disheartening gluten/soy paradigm in favor of something actually beefy. It’s great news, even if it requires liberal use of condiments. But the paradox raises its head in that the touted solution to massive industrialized beef production is to replace it with massive industrialized yellow-pea-powder-extruder-cooker production. While there’s no question that this would be a big leap forward morally, as well as in terms of land use and climate change, you’re still left replacing real food with a food-like substance “designed” by guys whose last gig was modifying yeast to produce jet fuel from sugar. What’s more, the business plan is indistinguishable from the business plan of the massive agribusiness they’re gunning to take down — new boss, same as the old boss. Is it a better boss? Probably. But when you consider that the whole enterprise is based on the idea that if we change the very last link in the chain, then everything else can stay just the same, the paradox doesn’t sit very well.
In Colorado, the culture wars have found a new battleground on the premises of the Azucar Bakery in Denver. That’s where baker Marjorie Silva took an order to make a bible-shaped cake, only to discover that the buyer also wanted it adorned with anti-gay slurs. Baker Silva said she’d make the cake, but told the buyer — one Bill Jack — that he’d have to write the bons mot himself. To my way of thinking, Baker Silva was being pretty open minded by not throwing the guy out of the shop. Mr Jack, however, has his own way of thinking, which lead him to Colorado’s civil rights division where he filed a complaint that he had been (wait for it) discriminated against. A well-honed sense of irony, we can surmise, is not one of Mr Jack’s strong points, even if his ability to generate paradox is spot on. As he said to a local TV station, he was “discriminated against because of my creed.” Reflecting on this, I find myself tempted to say that I didn’t know that assholism was a creed, but I worry that would just make it look like I haven’t been paying attention.
Also in the stage set that was once the Wild West, wild horses can still be found thundering across the horizon. It’s a sight that we’re fond of, perhaps because of it reminds us of the nation’s storied past, or possibly some movies we once saw. Regardless, it must be a sight that we really love, because in 1971 Congress passed an act which required the Bureau of Land Management to protect the feral horse population. Forever.
Now, almost half a century later, we’ve got wild horses coming out of our ears. They tear up the rangeland, eat all the forage and breed — exactly what you’d expect from an invasive species with no predators. Occasionally one gets adopted, but there’s a surprisingly limited number of people who want to take on the responsibility of taming angry thousand pound wild animals. What’s more, the Wild Horse and Burro Act forbids culling the herd, even now, when overpopulation is making the lives of the untouchable mustangs miserable — thus making this protect-it-til-you-hurt-it paradox legally required.
Lurking on the fringes of this foolishness is another way of looking at our plague of horses — namely, as food. Your reaction to that thought will largely be a result of whether you affiliate with the British noble-steed sensibility or with the more sanguine notion of the romance language nations, which consider horses as both pets and food. These two sensibilities are privately play here in the States, but in public, it’s thoroughly taboo. One prominent chef recently attempted to change the American palette and mindset by putting horsemeat on the menu and for his trouble got not only death threats but also ominous visits from the FDA telling him to just knock it off.
The paradoxes are juicy here: how we imagine an invasive species as an inviolable part of our heritage; how we venerate them as the pioneers never (ever) did; how we’ve protected them so completely that it’s killing them. Or maybe… I’ve got it all wrong, and it’s not a paradox. After all, out-of-sight-out-of-mind seems to be standard operating procedure when it comes to what were once farm animals, whether it’s horses running free or millions of swine in their CAFO concentration camps.
Some animals, however, get no love at all. One such is the Belding’s Squirrel, a ground squirrel native to California and a few other western states. It’s a cute little thing, and social too, living in large groups and digging subterranean tunnels systems and dens. They even show altruism, with members of the clan willing to sacrifice themselves to warn the others of danger. So why, you ask, are Belding’s squirrels considered a pest?
It’s because the digging and the clannishness collide with farming. Cows get their feet stuck in the holes, and when a group of Belding’s has dinner in an alfalfa field, they chew sections down to the dirt. It’s why some farmers have been known to give local teenagers a box of .22 shells with a promise to pay a buck for each tail.
Humans may view Belding’s as eradicable vermin, but nature, research has just revealed, views them in a different light — as ecosystem engineers. That’s the term we give to animals who fundamentally alter their environment, to the benefit of the other creatures which share it. (This is why humans don’t get the “ecosystem engineer” label.) The environment that Belding’s so energetically engineer is, in fact, one that’s crucially important to California’s agriculture — the mountain meadows of the Sierra. These meadows act as giant sponges, capturing water from California’s increasingly elusive snowpack. Or rather, they did, because climate change is turning the meadows from sponge to hardpan. It’s part of the grim calculus of drought in the epicenter of United States agriculture that there’s not much people can do about that. But the Belding’s squirrel can, because the behaviors that make farmers loathe the little guys are also the behaviors that gives them the power to rehab the meadows. Problem is, this is one vermin which is turning out to be endangered, too.
On the other end of the country, the problem is too much, not too little. Egg Studios, a small video multimedia company in Halifax, Canada, has put their spare time to use in producing a rather wry lever to pry the Keurig Green Mountain corporation into awareness. In case you’re not familiar with KGM, they are the makers of K-Cups, a massively popular, maximum-plastic-waste single-serve coffee product that’s impossible to recycle. In case you’re not familiar with Green Mountain, they were the small Vermont coffee shop turned socially-minded corporation. Put them together and you get a very large, very irresponsible corporation[ http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/green-mountain-keurig-coffee-pods-waste-recycling]. Many people have written and commented about how the $50/pound coffee of K-Cups are creating a blight of waste, but KGM has remained unmoved — until now.
Egg Studio’s wry two-minute video apocalypse, in collaboration with KilltheKCup.org, has finally gotten the behemoth’s attention. And that’s all great, an instance of the power of art (using the term rather loosely) to effect change where other, more rational avenues, cannot. But the thing that amazes me, the paradox that I cannot quite get past, is how, at this point in history, it took a viral video to point out to KGM that you just can’t do twentieth century bullshit like this anymore and not get called on it. I mean… really? No one thought this would be a problem?
And finally, the paradox of solutions. It’s not hard to find stories about college-educated twenty somethings turning to farming. They’re a far cry from their rather naïve back-to-the-land predecessors in the 70s — the new wave is wired, savvy and well aware of how their corner of the earth connects with all the other corners. I think this is a significant change, especially in a nation were 1% of the population feeds the other 99%, and much of that 1% is either part of or beholden to the 1%; it’s hard to run a democracy when most of the food comes from the plutocracy. But still, there’s a faint taint of privilege connected to these stories, a sense that only certain young adults have the economic and social freedom to experience the transformative power of working the earth. Well, here’s something entirely free of that taint, a story of skinheads, methheads and Mexican gangsters experiencing the transformative power of working the earth… a paradox I feel entirely happy to leave unresolved.