By Mary Odum
I’m housesitting in Alaska, and my return to a place where Mother Nature is in charge once again motivates me to express myself. The front yard of this house is a beautiful rock garden which is low maintenance, and fertilizer and pesticide-free. But the real front yard for this house is the back yard, which backs to 780 square miles of Chugach State Park and its pristine wilderness. That view is grounding, reminding me of what the world looked like before the fossil-fueled growth of the past two centuries. Can we return to that view after the fossil fuels are gone, with clear
air, drinkable water, and an intact food chain? Do we just throw up our hands and accept die-off? Or do we actively work towards a more balanced society? Who’s going to do that and how do we start? This post is about prosaic lawn reform as a symbol of change and personal responsibility for the environment, but first I’m going to wander in synthesis through the threads of current events, to pull that theme together.
Many chaotic current events compete for our attention, yet the speed with which they are occurring suggests we are in an era of tipping points. How does one describe the collapse of an empire—where do we start with so much chaos in the world, and a global world view that promotes the mandate for economic growth? Do we begin with politics, or culture, or the financial system, pollution, or even renewable energy? Those competing current events are all related, but only if we use systems thinking to view the picture at a larger scale. The focus of most people on single causes such as climate change, or politics, or tech-happy solar futures, is comforting, since reductionism to single cause issues creates solutions such as adding technology (and thus more energy and pollution) allows us to keep on with our lifestyles. We tell ourselves (or we read too much Grist or Treehugger who tell us) that we don’t have to do anything except to buy more technology—we can keep what we’ve got, and the problems lie at the larger scale with us as helpless victims. We can buy a Prius (or a Tesla!), or a solar panel, and just keep on trucking, while blaming a powerful other, such as a presidential candidate, or Exxon, when it is the entire system, including us, who is responsible. Voting for one political party or the other is inadequate. Staying quiet while xenophobia and gun violence takes hold of your country is inadequate. Focusing on single cause environmentalist issues is not enough.
Reductionism closes the conversation to the real problem of growth, and the big picture, creating denial and a comforting absolution to Business as Usual (BAU). Reductionism allows us to fit in culturally to a world whose religion is economic growth, but it is a form of self-deceit. Our mandate that insists on the economic need for growth has to change in order for us to accept our personal responsibilities in all of this, and not blame our problems on scapegoats or find solutions that just make things worse.
Relocalization is coming, are you ready?
The political and financial circus this month related to Brexit is an illustration of what reductionism does to our thought processes. Most reduce the issue to politics, suggesting that those against Brexit are wealthy “haves” who support the status quo and further globalization. Those for Brexit are angry reactionaries to immigration of war refugees or reactionaries to their own poverty. But viewed from the larger scale, in a political world in overshoot still striving for even more globalization through the Trans Pacific Partnership in the face of diminishing energy production, Brexit is the first step in de-globalization, with smaller economies, local currencies, and more self-interest in contrast to corporate interest. A future with less energy will become more local politically, with retraction into geographically smaller political entities. It will become smaller culturally, with problems such as xenophobia and increasing violence, as political boundaries reshuffle as the system’s response to resource imbalances. Relocalization will result in healthier cultural shifts such as cultural de-homogenization and less complexity. The new world order promoters may have overreached their boundaries with their machinations about the TPP. Globalization promotes economic growth, resource extraction and consumption, resource imbalances, and increasing corporate power, while further skewing trade imbalances and heightening disparities between haves and have-nots. The fact that there are only several brief, emotional articles on Brexit as a step towards de-globalization, that view de-globalization as an economic threat, emphasizes how blindly focused on growth our world views have become. So how is Brexit, a global, political issue, related to responsibility for ecological generation? Descent is here, and it is visible on the global scale in terms of political events and widespread industrial-scale pollution. It is time to understand why things are happening, so that we can avoid looking for scape goats, and begin taking responsibility for the process of personal change.
For fertilizer, more is better?
The uproar this week in south Florida from Okeechobee water releases that created heavy algae blooms on beaches on both coasts, which is being billed as “playa guacamole,” contributes to my theme of personal responsibility for ecological regeneration. Suddenly, cumulative and repeated phosphorus and nitrogen overuse and runoff have reached a tipping point, and are visibly damaging economies. While there is a lot of talk in Florida of removing septic tanks, or shifting water from Okeechobee into new land purchases south of the lake, that doesn’t fix the real problem, which is runoff from fertilizer (and pesticides) in south Florida, combined with a long history of channelization of the Everglades and damming of the Okeechobee by the Army Corps of Engineers. And when released water gets to the coast, it dumps onto beaches and into canals, instead of being absorbed into what was historically nutrient-buffering Everglades, estuaries and mangroves, letting Mother Nature do the work and deal with the overload. We are what we eat, and industrial scale waste has to go somewhere. It’s just that now, the problems have gotten so big that the damage is visible from space, and smell-able on both coasts, becoming a tipping point. Environmental refugees—it’s a thing, and closer to home than one might think. I have already met one environmental refugee in Gainesville this month, who moved away from the Treasure coast disaster in the Port St. Lucie area. Industrial scale fertilizer—it’s a problem, and if you have a lawn and use fertilizer, you contribute to the problem.
The water picture in north Florida is more hopeful. I support the Florida Springs Institute, and I’ve been mulling the role of springs advocacy in the bigger picture. The assaults on Florida springs include urban and agricultural water withdrawals, urban and agricultural fertilizer, dairy and cattle ranches, neighborhood lawn run-off, and septic tanks. Many of these problems are large-scale problems secondary to growth, which are difficult to impact or influence when competing with powerful corporate and big agriculture lobbies. Well, they are difficult to impact until a problem becomes visible from space—then people get riled and tipping points occur. Large-scale movements often attack powerful others such as corporations or politicians who are one component of the problem—in the case of south Florida’s current phosphorus pollution crisis the scape goats are Big Sugar and Florida’s governor. But there are things that we can do, once we recognize that we are all contributing to the problem, since we are participants in an economic system in extreme overshoot, where we use energy intensely, eat the products of industrial agriculture, and live in suburbs where we create toxic runoff. The system needs to change radically, and change begins with us. We contribute to the problem, and our beliefs about growth need to change. If you still believe that economic growth and development is necessary and good, at the expense of what is left of our environmental support system, then you contribute to the problem. This view includes many environmentalists—are you one of them?
The war on nature—are you a foot soldier in it?
The answer to environmental problems is not more technology. My pond is a microcosm of what is happening at the larger scale. Pesticide companies commonly spray entire yards in the neighborhood, using a large high-pressure hose. Neighborhood runoff from heavy fertilizer and pesticide users in the neighborhood creates duckweed blooms in the pond, and heavy toxin loads. Then neighbors treat the “unsightly” duckweed by spraying the pond with 2, 4-D and Roundup, using an airboat. Those pesticides are in addition to routine municipal spraying for mosquitoes, which will probably increase now that media hyperventilation about Zika is creating anxiety. Why is the Zika threat being promoted so heavily in the media, relative to other problems? Is it amenable to pesticides, and what happens when we bombard our environs with even more pesticides than the scale we are producing now, due to Zika, with resulting die-offs? Won’t pesticides do more harm than good if the poisons kill the birds, bees, bats, and other insects that eat the mosquitoes? Severe declines in these populations mirror a rapid rise in global pesticide use.
Last fall the cumulative effect of pesticide use was a sudden frog die-off in the pond, which probably also ironically increased the mosquito population, since there was less natural mosquito larvae control. This month, there was a large fish-kill which was probably related to the heavy pesticide load, a 6-inch rain dump after a tropical depression with heavy runoff, and summer heat. Heavy pulses of pesticides and fertilizer overwhelm the pond, and Mother Nature can’t keep up.
Personal responsibility for regeneration
Ecological regeneration can begin on our own small plot of land if we are homeowners. We have some control over our own yards, and a change in behavior can change cultural values, reduce pollution, reduce consumption, and promote ecological generation. Examples can be powerful. We can do something, if we own pesticide and fertilizer-fueled lawns. If you still have one of these lawns, and consider yourself an environmentalist, you contribute to the problem.
Why do we have lawns anyway? The last two centuries of fossil-fueled growth encouraged us to believe that we could all live as kings and queens, to the manner born. The clipped, irrigated, fertilized, and pesticide-laden yard is a symbol of first world success and potential royalty in an economy that never stops growing, in the same way that our political royalty symbolizes everyman’s dream of being a millionaire. At some point soon, we will reject symbols of growth. Natural places will be in greater demand, as places of peace and natural prosperity. Lawn reform is energy-saving, time-saving, quieter, healthier, cheaper, and better for the environment.
We can be the change, beginning today. Plant trees, as they take a long time to grow. Convert your lawn to native plants. Stop irrigating, except for watering new plantings by hand. Stop using fertilizers and pesticides. Begin building soil instead of depleting it. Compost on your property, Return hardscapes to permeable surfaces, and use rain barrels and rain gardens to limit runoff. Use a corner to plant an organic vegetable garden if there’s room and sun, to add to your sustainability. Foster a complete ecosystem for the critters. And finally, talk to your neighbors and friends about the changes and why you’re doing them. While you’re at it, talk to the person who manages your kid’s soccer field, or the golf course. Why are you letting your children roll around on a carpet of pesticides, or eat food grown by a poison-maker?
Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County is back
At some point, we may not be able to buy fertilizers and pesticides anyway, or water may become costly or unavailable for irrigation. A yard full of native plants is non-carcinogenic (especially to vulnerable children and pets), and drought and heat tolerant in the face of climate change. In an era with less electricity, trees in the north can be used for firewood and in the south for shade and cooling. And economics may dictate that we use our time and money for more important things than mowing and dumping chemicals on the lawn. Besides, would you rather be mowing your lawn or exploring the great outdoors? So avoid the rush—working with nature takes time, especially if you want to grow trees. Lawn reform is also a personal solution for any of the single-cause environmentalist issues that the media is now focused on, including climate change, toxins, biodiversity, and fresh water use. If you have a treated, monoculture lawn, you are have a role to play in repairing environmental damage. Here are some interesting groups working on lawn reform.