When I was a young girl, my mother took great care not only to instruct us to be mindful about the natural world, but to live her instruction. Before you start having some sort of Wavy Gravy fantasy about Earth Mothers in broomstick skirts–my mom is a pre-school teacher. She could easily be confused for a modernized June Cleaver. She has a thing for cookies and shares a brain with our family dogs. But before I could even read, Rachel Carson was a part of my life. Silent Spring influenced my mother, who talks to her plants and the “outdoor pets” in the same way she talks to toddlers.
So, let’s talk about our cultural obsession with controlling the environment and how my upbringing has shaped the alarm with which I view several developments over the past three years. Below, I’ll cover several themes, all of which I see as major issues within the realm of that obsession with control: Biodiversity, public ignorance, and a few myths that have been used as substantiation for the development and deployment of increasingly toxic substances.
Biodiversity, It’s Not a Fad
The culturally popular images of endless fields of wheat, corn, or even soybeans that many seem to think symbolize prosperity are a giant skull and crossbones on the face of the earth. Let’s set aside the gallons of toxic substances we spray over these limitless, single-organism fields for the moment, and focus on why this very unnatural pattern puts us on the fast track for hungry times.
In the natural world, any ecosystem that stands a chance of survival is a complex microcosm of plants and animals. They work together, they keep each other’s populations in check, they fill specific niches. Americans have an obsession with control and also one for creating homogenous environments. Look at lawns, called Green Deserts by ecologists. All a single species of grass, interlopers are rooted out mercilessly, drowned in chemicals, growth is strictly regimented. And within these hellish green vacuums, there is little place for any type of biodiversity.
We spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars each year on pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers for a tiny square of lawn. Why? Because in such a desert of singleness, a single predator or disease vector can destroy the entire “crop” overnight. We saw it with the potato blight in 19th century Ireland, and the same principal applies to our precious status symbol. It also applies to those endless monocropped fields that we seem to think are so wonderful.
Pesticides: Not Just a Problem for Pests
I could probably write an entire book, or at least several chapters on the horrendous nature of modern pesticides and herbicides. But let’s just take a brief snapshot at one that has been much in the news over the past few years. Neonicontinoids are synthetic, designed to cause paralysis in insects by acting upon certain synaptic connections within the brain. Guess what? Bees are also insects. Are you following my drift? Honey bees and other pollinator species have been shown to be susceptible to these poisons in similar ways to pest species.
The big problems connected with this simple fact are:
- Bees and pollinators provide a substantial benefit to our food supply via pollination.
- Insects are often a food source for other species, which can lead to death or broadcast population difficulties in species of birds, beneficial insects, and mammals.
- “Sub-lethal” yet systemic compromise to hive health likely plays a huge, and very troubling, role in recent bee population stress.
- Tests of water and soil recently indicated that these poisons are mobile. Which means you’re drinking them and so are deer, birds, chipmunks, and possibly your dog.
- These toxins are not just used in agricultural applications, but also in domestic settings by lawn services. Which means your kids and pets are playing in them. Which means when it rains or you turn on the sprinkler, you are directly responsible for any contamination to local watercourses.
- Because these toxins are synthetic, they don’t break down once they enter the ecosystem. They go on doing what they were designed to do until they are sufficiently dissipated in soil, water, baby spinach, your kids’ soft tissue.
You should be horrified, because this is just one of the latest developments by the agrichemical industry. The most damning part of this? We don’t actually need these chemicals. Because they don’t, can’t, and shouldn’t kill 100% of the targeted species–that means the strong survive and breed, and the next generation will do the same until these poisons don’t work anymore.
Want to know the most horrible part? It’s been plainly demonstrated that these pesticides were killing not just bees, but birds as early as last year. We’re still using these poisons, because the whistleblowers are branded as crazy tree-hugging types. Well, I might be crazy, and I might occasionally hug a tree. But I’m also highly educated and know how to put facts together in a logical framework supported by evidence.
The Good News
In the interest of keeping this under 1,500 words, I’ll just say that it’s not too late for us to explore alternatives to these poisons. It’s also not too late to make use of the recent research on the benefits of small, integrated farms–which provide as much or more useable food as the large, corporately owned megafarms that rely on artificial fertilizers and chemicals to keep their monocrops producing and protected. Below, I’ll include a few links for each of the topics I covered, so you can read, follow leads, and conduct your own investigations.
What I would like to leave you with is that a sense of inquiry is vital. We cannot continue as before–simply using products without questioning where they come from or what their underlying costs represent. We cannot simply amble forward without a moment’s consideration of what our habits, tastes, and cultural ideologies are costing us and the rest of the planet–animals, plants, and the people of other countries. We seem to think, as a culture, that we can actually control our environment. This is, in a way, a birthright of the cultures from which we drew many of our popular ideas, governing philosophies, and cultural preferences. But the stark truth is that nothing is isolated. We are a part of this ecosystem, not above or outside of it. Even small changes help. Little things–harmful or beneficial–add up in the long run. I promise you that.
Sustainable Agriculture and Biodiversity:
Neonicotinoids, Animals, and Contamination: