Orion Magazine

America Is the Best Country in the World at Being Last

Like you and other Americans, I love my country, its wonderful people, its boundless energy, its creativity in so many fields, its natural beauty, its many gifts to the world, and the freedom it has given us to express ourselves. So we should all be angry, profoundly angry, when we consider what has happened to our country and what that neglect could mean for our children and grandchildren.

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Is American Capitalism in Profound Trouble?

This article first appeared at Orion Magazine under the title "The Cooperative Economy." You can enjoy future Orion articles by signing up to the magazine's free trial subscription program.

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From Farm to Table: How to Build a Real Sustainable Food Movement

AlterNet Editor's Note: The following is reprinted from Orion Magazine. Request a free trial issue of Orion at www.orionmagazine.org/freetrial This important article details a key area of problems that America's growing army of small food producers in America are facing as they try to expand their businesses: the cost of infrastructure. Jacobson explains, "Whether it is the stringent requirements for slaughtering and processing meats, the cost of building a production or storage facility, the learning curve regarding food-safety regulations, or the dearth of distribution options, many small-scale food artisans find it discouragingly difficult to grow beyond the booth at the farmers’ market." The trapped producers face a compounding difficulty that they end up competing with each other more and more for the same market share, and can't reach into the larger food market dominated by huge food chains and distributors.

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Will Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter Stop Meaning Anything When Climate Change Hits?

This article first appeared at Orion magazine under the title "The Discontent of Our Winter." You can enjoy future Orion articles by signing up to the magazine's free trial subscription program.

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Nanoparticles Are in Our Food, Clothing and Medicine -- And No One Knows for Sure How Dangerous They Might Be

This article first appeared at Orion Magazine under the title "Pandora's Boxes." You can enjoy future Orion articles by signing up to the magazine's free trial subscription program.

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Revolutionary Plots

Originally published in Orion Magazine. 
THE ANTI-WAR POET and soldier Siegfried Sassoon reports that toward the end of World War I, Winston Churchill told him that war is the normal occupation of man. Challenged, Churchill amended this to “war—and gardening.” Are the two opposites? Some agriculture is a form of war, whether it’s clearcutting rainforest, stealing land from the poor, contaminating the vicinity, or exploiting farmworkers, and some of our modern pesticides are descended from chemical warfare breakthroughs for the First World War. But gardening represents a much wider spectrum of human activity than war, and if war is an act of the state, gardening is far, far more ancient than city-states (if not nearly so old as squabbling).
Can it be the antithesis of war, or a cure for social ills, or an act of healing the divisions of the world? When you tend your tomatoes, are you producing more than tomatoes? How much more? Is peace a crop, or justice? The American Friends Service Committee set up a series of garden plots to be tended by people who’d been on opposite sides of the Yugoslavian wars, but a lot of people hope to overcome the wars of our time more indirectly through their own gardening and farming.
We are in an era when gardens are front and center for hopes and dreams of a better world or just a better neighborhood, or the fertile space where the two become one. There are farm advocates and food activists, progressive farmers and gardeners, and maybe most particular to this moment, there’s a lot of urban agriculture. These city projects hope to overcome the alienation of food, of labor, of embodiment, of land, the conflicts between production and consumption, between pleasure and work, the destructiveness of industrial agriculture, the growing problems of global food scarcity, seed loss. The list of ideals being planted and tended and sometimes harvested is endless, but the question is simple. What crops are you tending? What do you hope to grow? Hope? Community? Health? Pleasure? Justice? Gardens represent the idealism of this moment and its principal pitfall, I think. A garden can be, after all, either the ground you stand on to take on the world or how you retreat from it, and the difference is not always obvious.
So many of the projects that end up involving a whole community or school or generating a nonprofit begin with one person with dirty fingernails and big dreams. Antonio Roman-Alcalá, for example, was in his very early twenties when he and a cohort of idealistic young anarchists developed a dream of starting a collective with two bases. One would be urban, the other rural, he told me as we knelt on the slope of Alemany Farm, the three-acre, city-owned plot next to the Alemany housing projects in southern San Francisco, eating ground cherries (which come inside a husk like tomatillos and burst on your tongue like tangy plums). They had decided that the ideal life involved being both urban and rural, not one or the other. The two have often been opposed, their denizens casting each other in hostile stereotypes—the rural hicks and rubes, the corrupt and alienated city people. Of course the country and the city depend on each other like day and night; you might not want to depend on the carbohydrates grown in Manhattan or on the medical technology available in a farm county. And with peregrines and raccoons in major metropolises and the internet in most American farmhouses, if not in migrant farmworker shacks, the distinctions might not be as stark as they once were.
So the anarchist kids had an integrated vision, and then thanks to Antonio, they had a next step. His mother’s house is right on the border of Alemany Farm, so it was an obvious site—at least to him—to experiment. As we moved on to graze on early mulberries, he told me that Alemany Farm had been run by SLUG, the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners, until its leadership got embroiled in a corruption scandal and the whole organization that had done so many good things was shut down. The farm was abandoned and padlocked, though the padlock kept out only people who traveled the official routes. Children never stopped playing on this lush hillside that slopes down to what had once been Islais Creek, flowing east into San Francisco Bay, and is now the branch of Interstate 280 that snakes west from the 101. 
Antonio proposed that he and his cohorts try out some guerrilla gardening—unpermitted work on public or government land—to see how they liked farming and working collectively. Only a few of the group came along with him, and the group’s visions were never realized. But then the farm itself became a project and a vision, and for several years Antonio served as comanager, with Jason Mark, the editor of Earth Island Journal, who showed up several months later.
By this time we were eating the sweet fleshy petals of pineapple guava flowers and admiring the first blooms of pomegranates that, he told me, don’t do very well in foggy San Francisco. Guerrilla gardening would’ve been the easy route, but the farm became official, and what began as an anarchist project has evolved into, among other things, an exercise in cultivating, weeding, and wringing something fruitful out of a bureaucracy designed to protect the city from lawsuits and govern pleasure-ground parks, not to oversee a food-producing landscape run by volunteers. Any vision of a purely autonomous zone involving only Antonio’s companions decayed early on and from that compost grew a project to engage with practically everyone. There is still a fence around Alemany, and a padlock keeps people from actually driving in. It makes the place look closed from the road, but there’s an open gate a few steps away and another gate between the housing project and the farm.
As we desultorily ate some superb strawberries planted here and there on the slope—grids are not one of Alemany Farm’s strong suits—Antonio told me about their complex relationship with the housing project’s denizens, who inhabit a city-run set of bunkerlike buildings. The mission statement of Alemany Farm describes it as “a project of the Alemany Resident Management Corporation, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving conditions in the Alemany Community, a 165-unit public housing development beset by high unemployment and recurring violence. The Alemany Resident Management Corporation believes that we can address the root causes of violence by providing youth with meaningful opportunities for advancement.” In practice, this means an informal relationship, but a relationship nonetheless, involving occasional disagreements, open space for kids to play, as well as “You Pick It” free food on Wednesdays for residents who want to show up and glean. Comanager Jason Mark tells me the immigrant Chinese residents have been the most enthusiastic harvesters, and the farm now grows Asian vegetables like long beans as part of the relationship. 
A thin brown-skinned young man with bright eyes and shaggy hair, Antonio looks a little like Pan, the god of picnics and panics, and a little like a mild young Che Guevara. The farm is hardly the kind of preened and styled model garden that sometimes gets produced by, say, the Slow Food Festival in front of San Francisco City Hall, or by the architecture firm Work at PS1 in Queens, New York, gardens that are inspiring works of art but hardly viable economic models. At Alemany, there are some native plants on the slopes, and some mixed grasses, a scattering of willows and mature fruit trees like the mulberry, many more young trees, and ledges of plantings, along with a few beehives, a wetland pond full of cattails, and a windmill that never pumped anything but does say “farm” pretty well.
Down below in the flatlands there are actual rows of vegetables, rows of garlic with a polite sign to please not poach the plants before the garlic is mature, as well as a little amphitheater for the classes that come. They come in droves. More than fifty school field trips and other groups visit annually. Among the crops the farm produces is education in this second densest city in the United States. The schoolchildren get to do what we were doing, eat food right off the vine or stem or branch, to see compost and think about systems from the hyperlocal one producing whatever they’ve just tasted to the big systems producing the food they more routinely see, and sometimes even do a little work. Alemany Farm’s principal crop is connection, though they raise plenty of food too. About five thousand pounds a year, estimates Jason Mark, but that’s an informal estimate. While the farm may be funky, it is productive in a lot of ways that can’t be put on a scale to weigh. 
The second green revolution is an attempt to undo the destructive aspects of the first one, to make an organic and intimate agriculture that feeds minds and hearts as well as bodies, that measures intangible qualities as well as quantity. By volume, it produces only a small percentage of this country’s food, but of course its logic isn’t merely volume. The first green revolution may have increased yield in many cases, but it also increased alienation and toxicity, and it was efficient only if you ignored its fossil fuel dependency, carbon output, and other environmental impacts. It was an industrial revolution for agriculture, and what might be happening now is distinctly postindustrial, suspicious of the big and the corporate, interested in the old ways and the alternatives. This is more than a production project; it’s a reconnection project, which is why it is also an urban one—if we should all be connected to food production, food production should happen everywhere, urban and rural and every topsoil-laden crevice and traffic island in between. 
Today, major urban agriculture projects are firmly rooted in Burlington, Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and dozens of other American cities. Sales of vegetable seeds have skyrocketed across the country. Backyard chickens have become a new norm, and schoolyard gardens have sprung up across the nation and beyond since Alice Waters began Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard Project almost two decades ago. Organic farms and farmers’ markets have proliferated, and for the first time in many decades the number of farmers is going up instead of down. Though those things can be counted, the transformation of awareness that both produces and is produced by all these things is incalculable.
We think more about food, know more about food, care more about food than we did twenty or thirty years ago. Food has become both an upscale fetish (those menus that overinform you about what farm your heirloom ham or parsnips came from) and a poor people’s radical agenda, a transformation of the most intimate everyday practices that cuts across class—though it has yet to include all of us. In 1969, the Black Panthers ran breakfast programs to feed hungry inner-city children, and those children—or rather the children and grandchildren of those children—are still hungry, and the inner city is still a food desert: a place where access to decent food, or even to food, is not a given. But farming has come to the ’hood. And everywhere else.
When I go to colleges like Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin, which has a food garden project on campus, I sometimes find myself telling the students that baby boomers in their youth famously had sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, but the young now have gardens. Gardens are where they locate their idealism, their hope for a better world, and, more than hope, their realization of it on the small scale of a few dozen rows of corn and tomatoes and kale. Thought of just as means of producing food, the achievements of urban agriculture may be modest, but as means of producing understanding, community, social transformation, and catalytic action, they may be the opposite. When they’re at their best, urban farms and gardens are a way to change the world. Even if they only produced food—it’s food. And even keeping the model and knowledge of agriculture alive may become crucial to our survival at some later point. 
Food is now a means by which a lot of people think about economics, scale, justice, pleasure, embodiment, work, health, the future. Gardens can be the territory for staking out the possibility of a better and different way of living, working, eating, and relating to the world, though by gardens we nowadays mostly mean food-producing gardens, gardens that verge on farms, or small farms that verge on gardens. Projects like Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates antilawn campaign and Michelle Obama’s breaking ground for an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn a couple of years ago make it clear a movement is under way. You can tell that it matters, because the Obama organic garden prompted the executive director of the Mid America CropLife Association to write to its members, “The thought of it being organic made Janet Braun, CropLife Ambassador Coordinator and I shudder. As a result, we sent a letter encouraging them to consider using crop protection products.”
The rise of chickens, bees, and other agrarian phenomena in the city means that cities are now trying to craft ordinances to govern all aspects of food production, from backyard chickens and goats to the slaughter of animals raised for food. In Minneapolis plastic hoop houses—greenhouselike incubators for vegetables—have come up for consideration, though some think of them as an eyesore while others consider them useful occupants of vacant lots. Part of what is at stake is redefining the urban environment: do we want to see food produced? There are beautiful gardens; there’s also compost, manure, and other less decorative aspects, including butchery for those who’ve gone for animal husbandry as well as vegetable production.
The back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s generated a lot of scary stories about drugged-out communards eating roadkill and going on food stamps and generally failing at alternatives. But the era produced quieter successes, notably the seeds of the food revolution that is still with us—the rise of organic producers, markets, and consumers and the beginning of a new kind of attention to food. Some of it is still going: San Francisco Zen Center acquired the 115 mostly wild acres of Green Gulch Farm in 1972, and it’s still an exemplary several-acre organic farm seventeen miles from the city. Those rows of lettuces and beets and chard supply a lot of the produce for its three Buddhist centers and the Greens Restaurant (itself the first gourmet vegetarian restaurant of note, a key part of the food revolution, and the place where cookbook author Deborah Madison got her start).  Some of the excess is sold at farmers’ markets. What might have been innovative about Zen Center then is that it established centers in urban, rural, and wilderness settings, seeing the three as complementary rather than contradictory.
Nowadays, though a surprising number of young idealists take on the grueling work of running an organic farm in the country, there is no longer such a strong sense of separation, and urban agriculture is what might be newest about this new green revolution. (Maybe farmers’ markets helped bridge the divide.) Urban means that it stays small, for the most part, and that it engages with what cities have, both good and bad. That means, among other things, hunger, health issues, race, poverty, and alienation, as well as diverse cultures, lively engagements, and cross pollinations. Places like the once and possibly future South Central Farm in Los Angeles, at fourteen acres once the largest of the urban farms, flourish from the skill and energy of immigrants with agrarian backgrounds.
In my region, the San Francisco Bay Area, the new models have proliferated. In 1992 Catherine Sneed and now-retired Sheriff Mike Hennessey started to take prisoners from the San Francisco County Jail outside to work the arable land there. A huge success, both in providing a calm and positive experience for inmates often suffering from trauma and addiction and in training them for jobs outside, the Garden Project continues twenty years later. I have been to the big greenhouses, which are something any university or model farm would be proud of. The superb produce grown by inmate labor goes to senior centers, needy families, and others in the community. And Berkeley’s Edible Schoolyard Project, founded in 1995 to give kids a hands-on relationship to raising and eating good food, is still going, and has inspired countless spinoffs and emulations around the globe.
In 2001 a young woman who’d grown up in the Bay Area’s agrarian Sonoma County decided that the abundance of vacant lots and the dearth of decent food sources in impoverished, isolated West Oakland had a clear solution. Willow Rosenthal started City Slicker Farms there, a thriving project that is in some ways the opposite of Alemany Farm. The latter started with land and figured out how to work with people. The former started with people. Though they farm several leftover and abandoned parcels of land in the neighborhood, their most impressive achievement is setting up locals to become backyard gardeners. They provide soil testing and the skills and materials to get started, share labor at the outset, and maintain relationships with the backyard gardeners. In theory the small nonprofit could vanish tomorrow and the food would keep growing.
The public patches of land are where interns and volunteers work, where neighbors come by to chat and check out the chickens or the beets, and some of the land has even been set up to create hangout places. The public sites produced more than 9,000 pounds of food in 2011, but as Executive Director Barbara Finnin pointed out to me, the backyards produced more than 23,000 pounds. It’s not feeding the community—they estimate they’re producing 4 percent of the food—but it’s modeling the ways such a project could scale up to become a major source of food and a transformation of place.
City Slickers staff estimate that it would take seventy-seven acres—3 percent of West Oakland—to grow 40 percent of the fruit and vegetables consumed in West Oakland. They’re nowhere near that now, but maybe you can see there from here. I asked Joseph Davis, City Slicker’s farm manager, how he feels about the big goals and big ideas. He was pulling up fava beans they’d planted as a cover crop in a triangular lot that was also more or less a grand traffic island, and directing an intern on how to plant lettuce seeds. He gestured with a gloved hand and said, “That’s like the sky.” It’s far away, not the terrain he works directly, but omnipresent, he seemed to mean, and he kept on pulling and planting.
Finnin took me onward to see a neighbor’s big chicken paddock and then the corner lot where City Slicker’s own chickens reside. It was once a ground crops farmlet, but the kind neighbor who let them pipe in her water was foreclosed upon, and without a good water source they’ve shifted to a less water-intensive orchard and hen run. Several people, mostly older men, all African-American, were sitting on benches that had been built as part of the farm, and they greeted Barbara and me warmly, and she greeted some of them back by name. These odd fragments, corners of leftover and neglected land, are part of what City Slickers has, but the organization also has big dreams and realistic possibilities.
The food is great, the community relations seem to be thriving, and yet the project faces the same problem so many people in the neighborhood do: money. They have to raise it, there’s never enough, and there’s no self-sufficiency in sight for the staff of seven and the public farms, whose food is sold at farmstands on a sliding scale from free to full price. Since they’re farming community and skills and hope as much as lettuce, there’s no way to put a price on what they produce.
Another notable project in my vicinity is Pie Ranch, which runs a small farm on the peninsula and bakes goods—notably pie—to sell at Mission Pie, a popular café in San Francisco’s Mission District. The nonprofit allows inner-city kids to connect the two places, learn some important skills, eat some pie, and offer some to the rest of us. Some projects have been ephemeral, such as Futurefarmer’s San Francisco Victory Gardens project, which supports “the transition of backyard, front yard, window boxes, rooftops, and unused land into organic food production areas.” But the revival of the memory of World War II’s extensive agrarian achievement alone—Futurefarmer’s website points out that by 1943, 20 million victory gardens were producing 8 million tons of food—matters. Then there are the small and fly-by-night projects, like the San Francisco Guerrilla Grafters, who graft fruit-bearing branches onto the ornamental pears, plums, and cherries on city streets. This is just a sampling of the plethora of community and school gardens and other manifestations of the new urban agriculture in one region.
The achievements of the 1970s food revolution are still present in many ways, including a hugely increased array of produce and such supermarket items as tofu, granola, and organic anything and everything, multiplied by the rise of cage-free eggs and organic milk in the 1990s, and the migration of integrated pest management techniques from organic to other farms. San Francisco destroyed its old downtown produce district (the key site in the great noir movie Thieves’ Highway) to make room for high-rise office and residence towers—but kept its farmers’ market on Alemany Boulevard, a short walk from Alemany Farm. Since the 1980s, farmers’ markets have proliferated here, as elsewhere, and there are now two other large ones in San Francisco and dozens of smaller ones.
You might say that the Bay Area has so many of these things because it’s the Bay Area, and it’s true that the area is exceptionally affluent, good at innovation, and obsessed with food, but that very affluence makes access to land in and near urban areas difficult. Places like Philadelphia and most famously Detroit have the opposite situation: a fairly dire economy but lots of available land to cultivate. In 2006, when I went to look at Detroit’s post-ruin landscape of agriculture and weedy nature, I was amazed that the city even then had forty square miles of abandoned open space—places where the concrete or asphalt were mostly gone along with the buildings. The city had a verdant green hole in it nearly the size of San Francisco (which is only forty-seven square miles or so), and that hole was being filled in a little with community gardens, small farms, and abundant volunteer plants in the empty quarters. The place was in some profound sense posturban. It had the space to do what West Oakland’s farmers dream of: grow a lot of its own food.
Detroit without money and jobs looks like the future that may well eventually arrive for the rest of us, and its experiments in urban agriculture were not the pleasure gardens, elegant laboratories, or educational centers that many urban gardens are now, but attempts to figure out how to survive. Much of the gardening that is now often educational or idealistic may soon come to meet practical needs in the United States, and given the rising levels of hunger in this country, it’s necessary now. In Detroit, a significant number of people get meaningful amounts of their annual diet from gardens. Clearly there is room to increase this informal do-it-yourself food supply. And as our economy continues to produce unemployed young people, nonwage economies and nonwage productivity will become important new arenas for growth.
The victory gardens model suggests how prolific backyard and urban gardeners can be and how, scaled up, they can become major contributors to feeding a country and to food security. A recent study by Sharanbir Grewal and Parwinder Grewal of Ohio State University envisioned what it would look like for Cleveland—another Rust Belt city with lots of potential green space and lots of hungry people—to feed itself. In the most modest scenario, using 80 percent of every vacant lot generated 22 to 48 percent of the city’s fruits and vegetables, along with 25 percent of its poultry and eggs and 100 percent of its honey. The most ambitious proposal also included 62 percent of every commercial and industrial roof and 9 percent of every occupied residential lot: it could provide up to 100 percent of the city’s fresh produce, along with 94 percent of its poultry and eggs (and 100 percent of its honey again). It would keep up to $115 million in food dollars in the city, a huge boon to a depressed region. It would also improve health, both through diet and through exercise.
Clearly what might work in Detroit or Cleveland or Oakland is not so viable in superheated Phoenix or subarctic Anchorage. And then climate change can upset these enterprises as much as it can any agriculture—last year the Intervale Community Farm in Burlington, Vermont, at 120 acres the biggest urban agriculture project in the country, was devastated by torrential rain that washed out soil as well as plants. Spring deluges interfered with planting; Hurricane Irene did in many of the fall crops. The organization’s newsletter emphasizes that the summer season still produced a bounty of tomatoes, melons, and salad greens.
In an increasingly uncertain time, what is certain is that agriculture has invaded cities the way that cities have been invading agriculture for the past many millennia, that the reasons for this are as manifold as the results, and that the peculiar postwar affluence is over for most of us, and everything is going to become a little more precarious and a little less abundant. Given these circumstances, urban agriculture has a big future. Or several big futures, depending on the soil and the needs. Another lesson from the victory gardens is that with seeds and sweat equity, a lot can happen quickly: if the need to grow food arises, as it did during the Second World War, the gardens will come.
You can argue that vegetable seeds are the seeds of the new revolution. But the garden is an uneasy entity for our time, a way both to address the biggest questions and to duck them. “Some gardens are described as retreats, when they are really attacks,” famously said the gardener, artist, and provocateur Ian Hamilton Finlay. A garden as a retreat means a refuge, a place to withdraw from the world. A garden as an attack means an intervention in the world, a political statement, a way in which the small space of the garden can participate in the larger space that is society, politics, and ideas. Every garden negotiates its own relationship between retreat and attack and in so doing illuminates—or maybe we should say engages—the political questions of our time.
At its worst, the new agrarianism is a way to duck the obligation to change the world, a failure to engage with what is worst as well as best. In the ambiguously cynical end of Voltaire’s novel Candide, he concludes, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin” (We must cultivate our garden), which suggests that the garden can be a small piece of the world we can manage and put in order after giving up on the larger world. Certainly neoliberalism has been about destroying the public, privatizing the common, and taking care of yourself.
But you can’t have a revolution where everyone just abandons the existing system—it’ll just be left to the opportunists and the uncritical. Tending your own garden does not, for example, confront the problem of Monsanto. The corporation that developed genetically modified organisms as a way to promote its pesticides and is trying to control seed stock worldwide is a scourge. Planting heirloom seeds is great, but someone has to try to stop Monsanto, and that involves political organizing, sticking your neck out, and confrontation. It involves leaving your garden. Which farmers have done—this magazine documented, some years back, how the wheat farmers of North Dakota defeated Monsanto’s plans to introduce GMO wheat worldwide. But they didn’t do it by planting heirloom organic wheat or talking to school kids about what constitutes beautiful bread or by baking. They did it by organizing, by collective power, and by political engagement. The biggest problem of our time requires big cooperative international transformations that cannot be reached one rutabaga patch at a time.
The fact that gardens have become the revolution of the young is good news and bad news. Baby boomers of the sixties revolutionary variety had their hectoring bombastic arrogant self-righteous flaws, but they were fearless about engagement. The young I often meet today have so distanced themselves from the flaws of the baby boomers that they’ve gone too far in the opposite direction of mildness, modesty, disengagement, and nonconfrontation. (At a recent conference on the Occupy movement, two youngish people in the audience suggested that the slogan “We are the 99 percent” might hurt the feelings of the 1 percent; they wanted a polite revolution that wasn’t exactly against anything and offended no one, which is a nice way to be totally ineffectual.) The garden suits them perfectly because it is a realm of quiet idealism—but that too readily slides over into disengagement or the belief that your activism can stop with the demonstration of your own purity and lack of culpability.
Feeding the hungry is noble work, but figuring out the causes of that hunger and confronting them and transforming them directly needs to be done too. And while urban agriculture seems like a flexible, local way to adapt to the hungry, chaotic world climate change is bringing, we all need to address the root causes directly. Maybe there’s something in the fact that the word radical comes from the Latin for “root”; the revolutionary gardener will get at the root causes of our situation, not just cultivate the surface.
Churchill cast gardening and war as opposites because he saw gardening as a retreat into a peaceful private realm. Our age demands engagement. Gardens like Alemany Farm and City Slicker Farms produce it as one of their crops, while other gardens and food fetishism generally can be a retreat into privilege, safety, and pleasure away from the world and its problems. But gardening and all its subsidiary tasks are sturdy metaphors. You can imagine the whole world as a garden, in which case you might want to weed out corporations, compost old divides, and plant hope, subversion, and fierce commitments among the heirloom tomatoes and the chard. The main questions will always be: What are your principal crops? And who do they feed?
Hear a panel of urban farmers discuss the themes in this essay during a recent event hosted by Orion magazine.

The Dirty Energy Solution

From his desk in an office in Chicago, Jeff Smith has a bird's-eye view of the American landscape. Combing through a huge database of information compiled by the EPA, he can, almost literally, peer down every smokestack in the nation and figure out what's going on inside.

And what he sees is heat. Waste heat -- one of the country's largest potential sources of power, pouring up out of those smokestacks. If it could be recycled into electricity, that heat would generate immense amounts of power without our having to burn any new fossil fuels. By immense, I mean, speaking technically, humongous. Even after he's winnowed the nation's half a million smokestacks down to the most likely customers, that leaves twenty-five thousand stacks. "An astronomical number," Smith says.

His boss at Recycled Energy Development, Sean Casten, leafs through the reams of data Smith has compiled. The biggest sources of waste heat are some gas turbines used to generate power, but there are endless other examples. "Let's look at Florida," he says. "Here's a Maxwell House coffee roaster in Duval County. They're roasting beans, so all that heat has to go somewhere. About twelve megawatts' worth of potential electricity is going up the stack."

Casten could take the equipment he sells, a "waste-heat recovery boiler," and stick it on top of the stack. "Basically, there's a network of tubes with water in them. The heat would hit one side of it, produce steam, and we'd use that to turn a turbine and generate electricity. It's like any other boiler, just without a flame, because the heat is already there."

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Can Environmentalists Live Up to Their Own Standards?

If I ever preached to the choir, this luncheon was it. The sixty people in the room were professed environmentalists, all of them on the advisory council of an earth center at a college that advertises itself, rightfully, as strongly committed to environmental responsibility. Seated to my right was a friendly but road-weary woman who had arrived minutes before from Chicago. She had rented a car at the airport and driven straight here.

"When will you return home?" I asked.

"I'll go back this afternoon," she said.

My white cloth napkin lay folded in my lap. Two silver forks waited to the left of my plate. In minutes I would rise to speak at a meal for which and only for which one woman had flown from Illinois to North Carolina. In fact, I was speaking about the climate crisis. Could anything I said be worth those 750 pounds of carbon dioxide blasted into the atmosphere? Fifty-nine other people had journeyed here by various conveyances. Surely I was in part responsible.

That afternoon, on a panel at the same college, I was asked to discuss "walking the talk." As invariably happens in the company in which I often find myself, someone referred to the audience as "the choir" and to us panelists as "ministers" -- "What can we do to quit just preaching to the choir?"

By "choir" I assume the person meant the already converted, the dedicated, the environmentalists, which implies that somewhere out in the big world there are people who have not yet seen the light, or have seen the light but have not accepted it as their savior, and that our job might more necessarily be to bring those people into the fold. Another person raised her hand and talked about how the uneducated firefighters at the station where she volunteers drive F-150s and employ chemicals to green their lawns. "Where are those people today?" she asked.

As missionaries, the choir member implied, we are failing.

I looked around the room, trying to find the so-called choir. I have been trying to find the choir for a long time, and even more importantly, have been trying to join the choir. From where I stand, even the choir seems to be failing. Or as my friend Dave Brown put it, the choir may be much smaller than we thought.

Many years ago a man I revere, a forest ecologist who has done more than anybody I know to promote his home ecosystem, revealed to me that he shoots hawks. He and his wife love the birds that flock to their butterfly gardens; they love to watch them through a floor-to-ceiling bird window. Yet my mentor loves the colorful songbirds more than he loves the raptors they attract, and in this conflict of interest the ecologist kills hawks.

This private confession of a forest ecologist caused a great turmoil in me. Whitman, of course, said, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself." But I'm a purist. I like black and white. I like hawks.

I fear what this choir -- the one I attempt to sing in and occasionally preach to -- actually looks like.

At risk of appearing a fraud, I want to admit my own culpability right up front. I live in a comfortable house in the small city of Brattleboro, Vermont. My husband and I cut trees to heat our home, and some of them are alive when we fell them. On the coldest days we turn to fossil fuels to keep the house above sixty degrees. We drive vehicles that consume fossil fuels, and we have raised a son who also now drives a gasoline-powered vehicle. We even own a motorboat. Our home uses electricity that, in part, is produced by the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. I fly regularly. Never having been to Europe, I'd like to take my family there someday, and chances are we'll fly.

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What to Say to Those Who Think Nuclear Power Will Save Us

Chances are good, gentle reader, that you are going to have to sit next to someone in the coming year who will assert that nuclear power is the solution to climate change. What will you tell them?

There's so much to say. You could be sitting next to someone who hasn't really considered the evidence yet. Or you could be sitting next to scientist and Gaia theorist James Lovelock, a supporter of Environmentalists for Nuclear Energyâ„¢, which quotes him saying, "We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear -- the one safe, available, energy source -- now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet."

If you sit next to Lovelock, you might start by mentioning that half the farms in this country had windmills before Marie Curie figured out anything about radiation or Lise Meitner surmised that atoms could be split. Wind power is not visionary in the sense of experimental. Neither is solar, which is already widely used. Nor are nukes safe, and they take far too long to build to be considered readily available. Yet Stewart Brand, of Whole Earth Catalog fame, has jumped on the nuclear bandwagon, and so has Greenpeace founding member turned PR flack Patrick Moore. So you must be prepared.

Of course the first problem is that nuclear power is often nothing more than a way to avoid changing anything. A bicycle is a better answer to a Chevrolet Suburban than a Prius is, and so is a train, or your feet, or staying home, or a mix of all those things.

Nuclear power plants, like coal-burning power plants, are about retaining the big infrastructure of centralized power production and, often, the habits of obscene consumption that rely on big power. But this may be too complicated to get into while your proradiation interlocutor suggests that letting a thousand nuclear power plants bloom would solve everything.

Instead, you may be able to derail the conversation by asking whether they'd like to have a nuclear power plant or waste repository in their backyard, which mostly they would rather not, though they'd happily have it in your backyard. This is why the populous regions of the eastern U.S. keep trying to dump their nuclear garbage in the less-populous regions of the West.

My friend Chip Ward (from nuclear-waste-threatened Utah) reports, "To make a difference in global climate change, we would have to immediately build as many nuclear power plants as we already have in the U.S. (about 100) and at least as many as 2,000 worldwide." Chip goes on to say that "Wall Street won't invest in nuclear power because it is too risky. ... The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island taught investment bankers how a two-billion-dollar investment can turn into a billion-dollar clean-up in under two hours." So we, the people, would have to foot the bill.

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How Our Fossil Fuel Dependence Is Jeopardizing Our Healthcare System

The scale and subtlety of our country's dependency on oil and natural gas cannot be overstated. Nowhere is this truer than in our medical system.

Petrochemicals are used to manufacture analgesics, antihistamines, antibiotics, antibacterials, rectal suppositories, cough syrups, lubricants, creams, ointments, salves, and many gels. Processed plastics made with oil are used in heart valves and other esoteric medical equipment.

Petrochemicals are used in radiological dyes and films, intravenous tubing, syringes, and oxygen masks. In all but rare instances, fossil fuels heat and cool buildings and supply electricity. Ambulances and helicopter "life flights" depend on petroleum, as do personnel who travel to and from medical workplaces in motor vehicles. Supplies and equipment are shipped -- often from overseas -- in petroleum-powered carriers. In addition there are the subtle consequences of fossil fuel reliance.

A recently retired doctor informs me, "In orthopedics we used to set fractures mostly by feel and knowing the mechanics of how the fractures were created. I doubt that many of the present orthopedists could do a good job if you took away their [energy-powered] fluoroscope or X-ray."

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A Global Democratic Movement Is About to Pop

I have given nearly one thousand talks about the environment in the past fifteen years, and after every speech a smaller crowd gathered to talk, ask questions, and exchange business cards. The people offering their cards were working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. They were from the nonprofit and nongovernmental world, also known as civil society. They looked after rivers and bays, educated consumers about sustainable agriculture, retrofitted houses with solar panels, lobbied state legislatures about pollution, fought against corporate-weighted trade policies, worked to green inner cities, or taught children about the environment. Quite simply, they were trying to safeguard nature and ensure justice.

After being on the road for a week or two, I would return with a couple hundred cards stuffed into various pockets. I would lay them out on the table in my kitchen, read the names, look at the logos, envisage the missions, and marvel at what groups do on behalf of others. Later, I would put them into drawers or paper bags, keepsakes of the journey. I couldn't throw them away.

Over the years the cards mounted into the thousands, and whenever I glanced at the bags in my closet, I kept coming back to one question: did anyone know how many groups there were? At first, this was a matter of curiosity, but it slowly grew into a hunch that something larger was afoot, a significant social movement that was eluding the radar of mainstream culture.

I began to count. I looked at government records for different countries and, using various methods to approximate the number of environmental and social justice groups from tax census data, I initially estimated that there were thirty thousand environmental organizations strung around the globe; when I added social justice and indigenous organizations, the number exceeded one hundred thousand. I then researched past social movements to see if there were any equal in scale and scope, but I couldn't find anything.

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Leave No Child Inside

As a boy, I pulled out dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of survey stakes in a vain effort to slow the bulldozers that were taking out my woods to make way for a new subdivision. Had I known then what I've since learned from a developer, that I should have simply moved the stakes around to be more effective, I would surely have done that too. So you might imagine my dubiousness when, a few weeks after the publication of my 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, I received an e-mail from Derek Thomas, who introduced himself as vice chairman and chief investment officer of Newland Communities, one of the nation's largest privately owned residential development companies. "I have been reading your new book," he wrote, "and am profoundly disturbed by some of the information you present."

Thomas said he wanted to do something positive. He invited me to an envisioning session in Phoenix to "explore how Newland can improve or redefine our approach to open space preservation and the interaction between our homebuyers and nature." A few weeks later, in a conference room filled with about eighty developers, builders, and real estate marketers, I offered my sermonette. The folks in the crowd were partially responsible for the problem, I suggested, because they destroy natural habitat, design communities in ways that discourage any real contact with nature, and include covenants that virtually criminalize outdoor play -- outlawing tree-climbing, fort-building, even chalk-drawing on sidewalks.

I was ready to make a fast exit when Thomas, a bearded man with an avuncular demeanor, stood up and said, "I want you all to go into small groups and solve the problem: how are we going to build communities in the future that actually connect kids with nature?" The room filled with noise and excitement. By the time the groups reassembled to report the ideas they had generated, I had glimpsed the primal power of connecting children and nature: it can inspire unexpected advocates and lure unlikely allies to enter an entirely new place. Call it the doorway effect. Once through the door, they can revisualize seemingly intractable problems and produce solutions they might otherwise never have imagined.

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When Does Green Rage Become Ecoterrorism?

People like to think of the courtroom as a crucible of justice, but to me it's always seemed a diluter of passions. The atmosphere is restrained, so respectful and genteel it's easy to forget that people's lives hang in the balance. The system has a way of straining out emotion. It is designed to objectify, to control the soaring passions that created the need for the courtroom in the first place.

The perpetrators and the victims pour their passions into the settling ponds of the attorneys, and the attorneys, in turn, pour the diluted stuff into the deep vessel of the judge, and, by extension, into the even deeper water of The System. If you sat in the gallery of a federal courtroom in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, last summer and watched as six young men and women entered guilty pleas in a string of environmentally motivated arsons -- crimes that the federal government describes as the most egregious environmental terrorism in the nation's history -- you might have wondered where the passion had gone. One by one, in a windowless chamber, the defendants answered perfunctory questions posed by Judge Ann Aiken, who sat Oz-like in the highest chair. One by one, they listened to descriptions of the crimes they were accused of committing. One by one, they accepted the government's offer of plea bargains, and one by one, they said the word. "Guilty."

Kevin Tubbs, thirty-seven, an animal rights activist who migrated to Eugene from Nebraska, mumbled the word and shook his head. Kendall Tankersley, twenty-nine, who holds a degree in molecular biology, choked it out through a gathering sob. Stanislas Meyerhoff, twenty-nine, who wants to study auto mechanics, said it with an odd sort of let's-get-this-over-with politeness. They addressed Judge Aiken as "your honor" and "ma'am."

In the gallery, reporters scribbled. Federal prosecutors with American flag pins affixed to somber blue suits looked on dispassionately. Sentencing dates were set, and the prosecutors, seeking lengthy terms, asked the judge to employ guidelines issued under counter-terrorism laws when considering how much time each should serve.

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Finding Hope in a Post-Oil Society

As the American public continues sleepwalking into a future of energy scarcity, climate change, and geopolitical turmoil, we have also continued dreaming. Our collective dream is one of those super-vivid ones people have just before awakening. It is a particularly American dream on a particularly American theme: how to keep all the cars running by some other means than gasoline. We'll run them on ethanol! We'll run them on biodiesel, on synthesized coal liquids, on hydrogen, on methane gas, on electricity, on used French-fry oil...!

The dream goes around in fevered circles as each gasoline replacement is examined and found to be inadequate. But the wish to keep the cars going is so powerful that round and round the dream goes. Ethanol! Biodiesel! Coal liquids...

And a harsh reality indeed awaits us as the full scope of the permanent energy crisis unfolds. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, world oil production peaked in December 2005 at just over 85 million barrels a day. Since then, it has trended absolutely flat at around 84 million. Yet world oil consumption rose consistently from 77 million barrels a day in 2001 to above 85 million so far this year. A clear picture emerges: demand now exceeds world supply. Or, put another way, oil production has not increased despite the ardent wish that it would by all involved, and despite the overwhelming incentive of prices having nearly quadrupled since 2001.

There is no question that we are in trouble with oil. The natural gas situation is comparably ominous, with some differences in the technical details -- and by the way, I am referring here to methane gas (CH4), the stuff that fuels kitchen stoves and home furnaces, not cars and trucks. Natural gas doesn't deplete slowly like oil, following a predictable bell-curve pattern; it simply stops coming out of the ground when a particular gas well is played out. You also tend to get your gas from the continent you are on. To import natural gas from overseas, it has to be liquefied, loaded in a special kind of expensive-to-build-and-operate tanker, and then offloaded at a specialized marine terminal.

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Gas Prospectors Exploit Public Lands




The sign at the edge of town makes you wonder what a sorehead up in the dry, windblown heart of New Mexico's San Juan basin might be sore about. Other signs that compete for attention along the same mile of highway provide a possible hint: WILLIAMS EXPLORATION AND PRODUCTION, DESERT POWER, SIERRA CHEMICALS, XTO ENERGY, UNDERGROUND SPECIALISTS, and on they go. A drilling derrick four stories tall looms above the sprawl of pipe and machinery at Aztec Well Servicing. These businesses, being so numerous, must belong to the friendlies.

If anybody in Aztec qualifies as a sorehead, Tweeti Blancett and her husband Linn would have to top the list. At first impulse, you might not take someone named Tweeti seriously, but that would be a mistake. Tweeti, whose blond hair spills from beneath her cowboy hat, ran George W. Bush's campaign in San Juan County in 2000, and she has similarly headed various of Republican Senator Pete Domenici's re-election efforts. Tweeti herself has served in New Mexico's House of Representatives. She is affable, energetic, capable, and extremely persistent. And because of what coal bed methane has done to her land, she is a certifiable sorehead.

Her duties last Memorial Day helped remind her what she is sore about. She took three "huge" tubs of flowers to the Aztec cemetery, and "it nearly wasn't enough." The cemetery lies at the end of a little ridge that used to be lonely, but nowadays so-called ranch houses crowd the hills around it. Downslope to the west run the Animas River and the ever-droning highway to Durango. Off to the north, jagged peaks in Colorado etch a blue horizon. Tweeti and Linn have buried two sons in the cemetery, lost to accident and illness, and there are lots of other Blancetts to keep them company: Myrtle, M. Linn and Violet, Robert Linn, Matilda, Edward, Marcellus, Golda, George L., and Caddie, to name a few. Inside the gate under an old cedar lie Moses and Lucinda, born in 1833 and 1834, respectively. There are also kin from the four families who came with the Blancetts to the San Juan country in the 1870s, even before it was legal for whites to settle, and into whose lines the Blancetts married. Altogether, Tweeti distributed her flowers among six generations of relatives.

Reprint Notice:
This article appears in the November-December 2006 issue of Orion magazine, 187 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, 888/909-6568, ($35/year for 6 issues). See Orion's website at www.orionmagazine.org.

The Blancetts are quintessentially the kind of people Wallace Stegner called "stickers," a class he distinguished from the itinerant waves of "boomers and busters" who swarmed after the West's mining strikes, land and timber rushes, reclamation projects, military contracts, and construction booms. The stickers sought to find their homes first, fortunes second. They were out to make a living, not a killing. If the West were ever to develop "a society to match the scenery," Stegner said, the stickers would have to prevail. Without them, the West risked becoming a soulless, ransacked nowhere.

The first wave of the San Juan basin oil and gas boom came in the 1950s, and Linn Blancett's parents welcomed it. The oil and gas boys put money in the ranchers' pockets, and they opened roads into the backcountry that increased access to water and eased the hard work of tending and gathering cattle. The exploration drillers of that era sought petroleum and "sweet" gas, which is high-quality natural gas found in large reservoirs. The wells were widely scattered. The crews and pipelines were few. People like the Blancetts adapted and got along.

Coal bed methane (CBM), which became a regional obsession in the late 1990s, changed everything. Every coal formation harbors a quantity of methane, the primary component of natural gas, but because the coal is dense and the seams and cavities in which the gas collects are small, each well taps a relatively small volume of the formation.

It takes a lot of wells to pull the gas from a coal bed efficiently. In the canyons north and west of Aztec the wells go in on a grid so tight you can't stand at one and not see another -- even in broken country. It is the kind of density that in New York City would put about fifteen wells in Central Park, none much more than a quarter mile from its neighbors. And each well has to have a road and a pipeline, plus a compressor, probably a sump for the foul liquids that the drilling generates, plus maybe a pump jack, a dehydrator to separate gas from water, and a tank for still more foul liquids that come from the dehydrator once the well is producing.

Before long, the sagebrush flats and junipered mesas of the San Juan basin groaned day and night with the rumbleroar of innumerable engines. The same region that bred the stoicism of the old-time Navajos and Utes had become a vast factory spread over hundreds of square miles, an industrialized wildland, no longer wild, producing hundreds of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of pipeline gas. Amid the seeming prosperity, however, the hemophilic soil eroded from bulldozed drill pads and road cuts, antifreeze dripped and lubricating oil pooled, and the chemicals and effluents of the drilling trade stained the earth.

Most of the bad stuff, most of the time, was trucked off, but not all of it, not always. So when the rain finally fell the way a rancher had to pray it would, the contaminants drained with the good water into puddles where the cattle drank, and a rancher like Linn Blancett or his neighbor Chris Velasquez might check on his livestock and find that some had aborted or gotten sick or lost their hair or, in some cases, just dropped dead. And meanwhile the mule deer, elk, jack rabbits, coyotes, and other critters were drinking the same toxic brews.

"The good part," says Tweeti, "is that the other places with oil and gas that the energy companies are just now breaking into can at least see what's going to happen to them. The bad part is that the ranch is gone. We can't run anything up there anymore. All you would do is turn them out and they would die." For the better part of 40 years, the Blancetts ran 250 head of mother cows on 32,000 acres, 95 percent of which was public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). For the last few they fought with the agency and the energy companies spill by spill and permit by permit, seeking enforcement of existing regulations as well as new protections. Although they won a share of battles, they lost the war. When wells on their allotment outnumbered cattle by almost three to one, with more being drilled every month, they sold the cattle. But they haven't sold their grazing permits: they are still fighting.

Chris Velasquez has made a similar retreat. Like Linn Blancett, he comes from a long line of stickers, counting back five generations to his ancestors' first toehold on the Río de San Juan a few dozen miles upstream of its confluence with the Animas. Fifteen years ago Chris and his wife, Kay, hocked everything they owned to buy permits to graze two hundred head for six months of the year on the thirty-thousand-acre Rosa allotment. Once there, they set aside a third of the allotment for wildlife and grazed the rest. That act of altruism, plus the cooperation he showed toward the BLM and its energy company clients, won Chris a statewide award for excellence in range management in 1995. His contacts at the BLM had nominated him for the honor, but the mutual affection didn't last. By 2000, CBM development had reached a frenzy on the Rosa, and the innumerable meetings he attended "to work things out" failed either to reverse the decline in his calves' weaning weights or to prevent a fair number from being poisoned. Six years later, after constant argument and confrontation, the five hundredth well went in on the Rosa, and Chris sold his permits. In a moment of rare candor, a BLM manager told him, "I feel sorry for you, but you are in a sacrifice zone."

That kind of language hearkens to the 1970s, when government officials spoke openly about the necessity of accepting "national sacrifice areas" so that the United States might secure its energy independence. The strip mines of the Four Corners region and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, the continued despoliation of Appalachia, and the disgorgement of oil shale from Colorado's Western Slope, it was said, would be the lamentable but necessary price of national security. Since then, many strip mines have been torn open; beleaguered Appalachia, thanks to the relatively recent innovation of "mountaintop removal mining," is more cursed than ever; and oil shale development is again attracting investment. But sacrifices notwithstanding, the nation's dependence on foreign oil has doubled since 1982 (to 56 percent of total consumption), and in the same period U.S. dependence on foreign gas has tripled to almost 15 percent. And no one speaks publicly about sacrifice.

On County Road 2770 in Hart Canyon where the Blancetts used to run their cattle, the Bureau of Land Management has erected the area's most ironic welcoming sign. It says:



My public lands? You talkin' to me?

A visitor to Hart Canyon has to wonder whose land Hart Canyon really is. The Blancetts used to think it was theirs. They used it, tended it, knew it. It was their partner, not for a few months or a year, but lifelong, or so they thought. Yet they recognized that others also had a right to it: hunters mainly, and the sweet gas people. Nobody else was much interested. Hart Canyon is neither particularly scenic nor especially productive in a biological sense. It is homely, unspectacular land, like most of the West, like most of the world, the kind of land a cynical outsider might say "mainly keeps hell from shining through." But if you, or anyone, depend on land and struggle with it and worry about it and study it through all weathers and whole stages of your life, and if you have a heart that beats, that land is land you come to love. More than that, or maybe it is the same thing, the land gets into your bones and becomes part of you.

And so for the Blancetts when the land turned poisonous and hostile, as though a golem had materialized from its subterranean gases and waged a war against them, "It was," says Tweeti, "other than losing our boys, the most devastating thing we have had to accept."

Law and custom have teased land ownership in the West into as many parts as the land can offer. One person or entity might own the "fee," which is the surface of the land; another might hold the grazing rights, and others the rights to the water or the timber. Still others might separately own the surface minerals (sand and gravel) or the subsurface (everything else). In theory everything gets an owner, and in practice a single owner rarely gets everything. A corollary quirk in the law, born of the nineteenth-century notion that the West's best hope for economic prosperity lay with mining, holds that mineral rights generally trump all other rights, including ownership of the fee. This means that if the minerals under the pretty little ranch you just plowed your life savings into belong to somebody else, you might one day see the land you thought was "yours" erupt with the drill rigs and heavy equipment of the coal bed methane industry. It's the old story of "if one guy gets the mine, somebody else gets the shaft."

The ultimate dissection of the land into its constituent uses implies, oddly enough, that the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. It is a kind of reductivism on steroids. The intent is to increase the velocity of economic growth by maximizing the number of things that can be bought and sold, and it is a strategy that has always favored boomers over stickers.

The federal government has tried to ameliorate the fragmentation of interests on public lands by pursuing an official policy of "multiple use." At times the strategy has worked, but only when guided by an ethic of restraint and supervised by honest referees. The plain fact, clear to all but selectively denied according to self-interest, is that coarse uses, if unchecked, drive out the fine. Backcountry skiing dies where snowmobilers swarm like hornets. Hiking and fishing become joyless in a cow-burnt meadow, and nothing gets along with cut-and-run logging.

Money, invariably, trumps restraint because it buys the rules and referees that its possessors need, and in coal bed methane development, where a million-dollar well can pay for itself in a matter of weeks and then exhale profit ever after, there is no shortage of money. Which means coal bed methane is as compatible with multiple use as a clearcut or a crown fire.

In Hart Canyon the dust from trucks hardly ever settles. Tankers haul foul water to reinjection wells that pump the waste back into the ground. Semis pull flatbeds bearing bulldozers, backhoes, trenchers, derricks, engines, well casing, compressors, everything the vast horizontal factory needs. And fleets of tool-laden white pickups, each flying a jaunty red pennant (for visibility), scurry up and down the roads like tenders in a busy harbor. If possession is nine-tenths of the law, the interests that command those vehicles own Hart Canyon, the Rosa allotment, and nearly all the land between and around them, notwithstanding the sign that says your public lands. Those same interests will continue to own the land until they go away, which one day, in the obligate manner of all boomers, they must. At that point, the fate of the land becomes an interesting question. Tweeti remembers how Linn put it when he told her their long fight was useless: "He said, 'Tweeti, there is no way we can reclaim this land in our lifetime. If that's all we did, and there was no more drilling, there was no more traffic, no more wells, no more pipelines, we can't repair it within our lifetime.'"

But CBM won't be leaving soon. In 2003, the BLM adopted a management plan for its Farmington, New Mexico, resource area that predicted approval over the next ten years of an additional 9,942 gas wells on federal lands across a major swath of the San Juan basin, encompassing Hart Canyon, the Rosa, and much else, where 18,000 oil and gas wells were already active.

Everybody knows that we Americans guzzle the world's largest shares of gas and oil. Everybody knows that each additional ruined canyon will have a negligible effect on the nation's voracious appetites. Everybody knows that you can still floor it when your gas tank is a half-pint short of empty.

Jack O'Neal, sunburned, gruff, and squinting under a white hard hat, has worked in the drilling fields for almost thirty years. He's been cavitating CBM wells for the last five. That means he and his crew set a drill rig over a well where production has begun to taper off -- it only takes them half a day -- and then they reopen the well and pump various liquids into it under tremendous pressure. The idea is to pulverize the coal at the bottom of the well and create a cavity where gas will more easily collect. It is a little like shaking a bottle of soda pop, except that when the shaker's thumb comes off the bottle mouth, the release of pressure roars like a jet engine for up to fifteen minutes. O'Neal repeats the process three or four times and then pulls his rig away to cavitate another well. What he and his crew do is difficult and sometimes dangerous. But they are good at it. They work hard and efficiently, and the companies that employ them make money. But years from now they'll be making their money somewhere else, which is one of the things that galls Chris Velasquez.

"If they make this much mess on the surface, what do you think it is like down below?" he asks. "What do you think is happening to the water my kids and grandkids are going to be drinking?" In October 2005 Chris and Tweeti watched as a long-boomed excavator systematically tore the lining from a collection pit and then used its bucket to mix the toxic waters with the underlying soils. They called their contacts at BLM, who came at once, expressed regret, and explained that they were powerless to act since the sump, which ostensibly existed in order to prevent mixing of its contents with the soil, was on private land. They said this in spite of the fact that at least a portion of the underlying minerals being developed at the site belonged to the federal government. The site lay less than two hundred yards from the Animas River.

Chris Velasquez knows what it is to be displaced. The small farm at the confluence of the Río de los Pinos and the Río de San Juan, where he grew up, now lies beneath waters impounded by Navajo Dam, which the Bureau of Reclamation built in the 1960s. "They drowned me out once, and maybe now they'll kill me with chemicals, but I am not going anywhere." Asked how it felt to lose his grasp on the land and have it turn against him, he says, "It was painless at first, and then by the time it began to hurt, we'd already had the full injection."

His metaphor is apt. Even the president has acknowledged the nation's addiction to foreign oil. George W. Bush would have made a stronger, truer point if he had said we were addicted to fossil fuels in general. What no one, least of all the president, talks about is how our lives compare to those of addicts. Most people think of junkies as perpetrators of crime, forgetting that they are also violent crime's most frequent victims. Their needs make them vulnerable. Down on the street, it is no big thing to roll a junkie. Up on the mesas and in the canyons of the West and in the hills and hollows of Appalachia, something similar is happening, and the victims are not just the Blancetts, the Velasquezes, or the mountaineers of West Virginia. As a nation and as a people, we are being shaken down all the way to the bottom. And we are taking much of the rest of the world with us.

Says Tweeti, who now travels far and wide in the United States and Canada to talk about CBM and energy development, "The thing that bothers me -- and I don't know that it bothers Linn as much as the loss of who and what he was -- but what bothers me is, people don't stand up and say anything. They just seem to take it."

Wind Power Is Energy for Optimists

It was a place I had often visited in memory but feared might no longer exist. Orange slabs of calcified sandstone teetered overhead, while before me, purple buttes and burnt mesas stretched over the desert floor. In the distance I could make out southeast Utah's three snowcapped ranges -- the Henrys, the Abajos, and, eighty miles to the east, the La Sals, shimmering into the blue horizon.

No cars, no roads, no buildings. Two crows floating on the late-winter thermals. Otherwise, stillness.

Abbey's country. But my country, too. Almost forty years after Desert Solitaire, 35 since I first came to love this Colorado River plateau, I was back with my two sons, eleven and eight. We had spent four sun-filled days clambering across slickrock in Arches National Park and crawling through the slot canyons of the San Rafael Reef. Now, perched on a precipice above Goblin Valley, stoked on endorphins and elated by the beauty before me, I had what might seem a strange, irrelevant thought: I didn't want windmills here.

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Optimism for a Post-Peak Oil Society

Can you feel the mood shifting? I can. A year of spiking speculation about peak oil and the death of suburbia has rattled lots of Americans. Plenty of people suddenly feel that real, civilization-shaking change might be around the next corner. And plenty of them also feel frozen in the headlights, unsure what, if anything, to do about it. Other than wait.

It reminds me a little of the very early days in the fight over global warming. Appalled at the forecasts of global destruction, some of us demanded immediate and strong action--high taxes on carbon emissions, for instance, and never mind the pain. Others -- more moderate or more politically realistic -- advocated a suite of what they called "no regrets" policies. They suggested, say, gradual rises in gas mileage, higher efficiency standards for appliances. Even if climate change proved to be overblown hooey, they pointed out, such rational and easy measures would still save us money, reduce conventional pollution, and so on. These steps were like taking out a modest amount of insurance; whatever happened we'd have no regrets about having adopted them.

In actual fact, of course, we took neither the urgent nor the more relaxed steps. Instead we bought Ford Explorers. Now everything that was frozen is melting and soon we will have ... regrets.

Who knows if we're actually going to see oil production peak sometime soon? Not me. I've read persuasive arguments that we will from writers like Michael Klare and James Howard Kunstler and Paul Roberts. I've also read confident counterarguments from people who've been right in the past, like Daniel Yergin of Cambridge Energy Research Associates. Oil depletion is not a straightforward physical law, like the fact that the molecular structure of carbon dioxide traps heat that would otherwise radiate back out to space. Instead it's a detective story that turns on questions like, are the Saudis lying about how fast oil is being depleted in their giant field at Ghawar? My suspicion had always been that we'd run out of sinks before sources -- that is, run out of atmosphere before oil wells -- but it's beginning to look like the race will be tight.

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The Housewife Theory of History

On the west coast of Madagascar, there's a tribe called the Sakalava, who are theoretically monarchists, loyal to a line of male kings. Their loyalty, however, is to dead rather than living kings, and the wishes of the dead kings are made known through spirit mediums who are, according to David Graeber in his wonderful Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, "usually elderly women of common descent." Which is to say that, officially, the Sakalava are governed by elite men, but ordinary elderly women are the literal voices of authority.

I'm not sure we're much different. We are governed mostly by elite men, quite a lot of them seemingly dead, and everything in our culture encourages us to regard these rulers not just as the central but the sole source of power. But history is changed again and again by people who are supposedly powerless, including the women veiled by the dismissive moniker housewife.

When Kristen Breitweiser, Patty Casazza, Lorie Van Auken, and Mindy Kleinberg, widows of men killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center, started doing research and demanding answers from elected representatives, they gave rise to the 9/11 Commission. Nicknamed the Jersey Girls, they became experts on national security and terrorism. A year after the towers collapsed, one of them spoke forcefully to Congress about what had really happened. A year and a half after that, the 9/11 Commission issued the official verdict that there were no ties between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. By that time, the Jersey Girls were campaigning against Bush's re-election.

They didn't win that one, but they won't go away, any more than the Seattle-area mothers of mentally disabled children did when they ran into roadblock after roadblock to getting their children public school educations and other basic rights. Those three mothers, Evelyn Chapman, Katie Dolan, and Jane Taggart, went, as my friend Susan Schwartzenberg says in her forthcoming book, Becoming Citizens: Family Life and the Politics of Disability, "from outraged mothers to sophisticated activists utilizing a well-honed network of politicians, labor leaders, legislators, judges and the media." In 1971, Washington State passed the law that paved the way for the national Education for All Act of 1975, renamed the IDEA--Individuals with Disabilities Education Act--in 1990.

I think of Lois Gibbs in Love Canal in upstate New York, who started investigating the rash of illnesses in her working-class neighborhood, founded the Love Canal Homeowners Association in 1978, and continued connecting the dots and fighting the power until she became a founding figure in the environmental justice movement. Today she is director of the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, helping people find the voice to oppose their own destruction and fighting to reduce human exposure to poisons like dioxin. Her work helped generate the Environmental Protection Agency. I think of Las Madres de Este Los Angeles, who succeeded in keeping a succession of toxic dumps, incinerators, and a chemical treatment plant out of their East L.A. neighborhood in the 1980s and 1990s.

I think of Women Strike for Peace, who faced down anticommunist authorities at the height of the Cold War to protest the nuclear arms race, nuclear weapons, and the nuclear testing that was causing catastrophic damage to the environment and human health--particularly that of infants and children. They started in November of 1961 with a one-day strike in the mode of Lysistrata, more than a hundred thousand of them in cities across the country leaving their homes to stand up against arms and war. The members of WSP subversively used their gender and their genteel, housewifely image to suggest that being against what the government was doing wasn't radical but sensible, motherly, and kindhearted.

This might be the secret of the housewife theory of history: These women take the qualities that are supposed to render them irrelevant and use them defiantly as well as strategically. Starting with what they love, they cut straight through the quicksand of motives and purposes to point out that harm has been done and should be stopped. In some sense, they depoliticize politics, which is what makes them so politically potent. When asked whether they were in cahoots with the Soviets, WSP activists said that they thought perhaps Soviet mothers didn't want their children afflicted by fallout either.

Women Strike for Peace achieved two signal victories. One was their contribution to the end of aboveground nuclear testing with the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, a huge step forward in limiting the arms race and its environmental damage. The other was the decline and fall of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Homeland Security Grand Inquisition of its day. When interrogated, the WSP women on trial so mocked and exposed the heavy-handed fearmongering of the HUAC that they helped to destroy it, making possible far freer political expression. They opposed the Vietnam War early on. And so the 60s, that era often associated with young men, was jump-started by women who used hats and gloves and baby carriages as part of their arsenal.

You could go farther afield to Buenos Aires, where the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo became the most fearless and visible opposition to a terrifying regime by organizing women across Argentina and contacting international human rights organizations. They still walk in protest in the Plaza de Mayo, the center of the nation, every week. They used their status as mothers to reject the definitions the government offered for those who had been "disappeared": These were not terrorists, they were beloved children who could not be erased. You could look to the women of the Niger Delta, who since 1986 have repeatedly shut down Shell and Chevron's oil facilities. But even here at home the history is clear: the 9/11 Commission, the EPA, the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Education for All Act. That's a radically different landscape than we might have occupied had these activists not stood up for themselves and their clan.

The typical cinematic consequence of personal injury is the outraged paterfamilias avenging his family with a gun, a role played by Charles Bronson, Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood, and George Bush. These killers don't pursue principles or seek to prevent further harm; instead they inflict it in revenge. Silkwood and Erin Brockovich are anomalies. They illustrate how the housewife-become-activist shifts from defending her own tribe to defending the principle that everyone should be free from fallout or dioxin, that everyone should have an education or know the truth about what the government is doing. She fights not for revenge, but for rights. The community she develops generates organizations, legislation, laws, education, and awareness. It's a saga of expanding connections, while the killer heroes in the movies remain strikingly isolated. One of the problems for unions and organizers in America is that our dominant stories about how the world gets changed feature lone heroes, not collectives and associations. The unsung builders of those associations make a shift from the personal and local to the national and the principle, which becomes the only way to continue taking care.

The Greek word oikos, meaning house, is the root of the word ecologist, which could be defined as, among other things, housewife. It's not that I'm so fixated on housewives, who are one among many categories of individual that have taken power to change the world, and it's not that I believe that the category housewife is so compelling a definition of women who have other lives before and after and often during staying home with kids. It's that, just as the Sakalava are officially ruled by kings while elderly commoner women do the talking, so are we officially rescued by action-hero loners while others do the real work of organizing to save the world (from, among other things, action-hero loners).

Paradise Lost

Suddenly we're not the same nation. There is in almost all of us a place -- even if some days only a small, postage stamp-sized place -- that is off-balance, frightened, pensive, even confused. And only now are we beginning to accept some of the basic truths about this small world, truths that we have previously been denying or debating for decades: that species extinction is rampant, perhaps unstoppable; that clear-cuts are crazed expressions of raw madness; that global warming is a reality, and that the mass of our numbers, and our relentless routine of consumption, are accelerating it; and that the heart of man is unchanging, always capable of great evil as well as great love.

Against such hard and ancient truths, and the breathless force of their disclosure in this new century which, like all the ones before it, seems to be shaping itself into a century of war, I take increasing solace in the logic, grace and unimpeachable democracy of those wildernesses that remain intact; and particularly our last native wildernesses, as opposed to those of distant lands, or the now-mythical wildernesses of storybooks. I think we are all -- even confined, lifelong urban dwellers -- reconsidering, if only subconsciously, the beauty of the green force, the wilderness icon, as a core or essence of some deeper meaning and order, and a force more enduring than even our own most magnificent artifices of stone and metal and glass.

In the midst of such re-emerging understanding, the goals of those who are proposing to protect the East's greatest treasure -- the Northern Forest, and our other last remaining wildlands -- seem to me to be long overdue -- a punctuation mark on the dream of Henry Thoreau, 150 years earlier, and one of the most patriotic place-based solutions to the challenge of the times that I can imagine.

The Northern Forest consists of 26 million acres of wildland -- some public, but much private, its fate hanging in the balance, poised before the jaws of the international timber companies who propose to liquidate it, then shred the already tattered and weedy remaining carcass into subdivisions and strip malls.

Much of the proposed preserve lies in New York's Adirondack Park, with the rest reaching across into Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. It's far and away the largest remaining wild forest in the East, though it's being skinned alive and swallowed whole even as you read these words. In the last three years alone, more than 6 million acres of forest lands have been auctioned off by the timber companies-turned-real-estate-speculators, who perform this reverse alchemy, gold into mire, by buying the land, paying lower agricultural taxes (if any), liquidating it, pulping it, then selling the haggard residue as prime real estate, without having had to pay the higher taxes that would have been associated with "developable" land. Your government at work.

Corporations enter the wild forests, maneuvering through them as if they possess the rights of individuals, the rights of American citizens -- but oblivious to any notion of responsibility, sustainability. A statistic that should make the blood run cold in the heart of anyone who loves Maine is the fact that such corporations own 85% of the entire state. A few mergers, and we could wake up tomorrow with only 49 states and a single corporate entity holding 4 electoral votes.

For all the drama of the goal of restoring and protecting the Northern Forest -- the largest and most commonsense, forward-looking vision this country has had since the long-ago dream of creating the first National Park at Yellowstone -- even this wild dream is modest. Such has been our appetite for consuming the world, however, that it's simply one of the best dreams we have left to us: a grand opportunity to express reverence for, and to celebrate, one of our country's last intact pieces of original landscape, original creation.

All over the Northeast, and all over the country, such dreams -- some large, some small -- are metamorphosing into action. Local land trusts are being established, and conservation easements drafted as we begin increasingly to consider what legacy we will leave to our children and their generation, wanting, in an imperfect world, to leave them some example of perfect beauty.

Incredible conservation initiatives, particularly in the Northeast, are being implemented: 500,000 acres here, 600,000 acres there. Conversely, I find myself too often devoting six months to fighting for a 10-acre logging unit; two or three years defending, and then trying to mitigate, a hundred-acre parcel. This is no way to live a life as either an activist or a "regular" person, (often I feel that we in the West are a hundred years behind the times), but I sometimes justify such wretched battles by taking solace in staring, late at night, at the last and largest blank spots on the map, in the last few such places where they can still be found. The solace of the larger dream is what provides support and fuel for such maddening little battles.

In every generation of man, I suspect, there has been the fear, the lament, that time is accelerating, and that with each day, the freedoms of a life and a culture, freedoms that have gone relatively unquestioned for the last many generations, are vanishing faster now, along with so many other things: icebergs, grizzly bears, clean air and water, open space, wild forests -- all once birthrights and yet all now under dire threat of disappearance within even our own short lives. "Of what avail are forty freedoms," wrote Aldo Leopold, "without a blank spot on the map?"

In such a time of perhaps unprecedented impermanence, it is these last blank spots on the map that the eye often turns toward, dreaming of integrity, wholeness, and restoration; of the absence of fragmentation. In wild places, wild forests, however -- unlike the human heart, which is still so often confused or uncertain or hesitant -- abstractions such as integrity are made startlingly, specifically, beautifully real.

The value of a larger dream, then, is that it encourages boldness, and possesses at its heart an irreducible element of security and sanctity and reverence: of order, amidst chaos.

And no dream is too large.

All of the elements, the fibers, of the dream are all still present in the Northern Forest, in full health, wild and hale and hearty: movement, time, growth and life weaving together to form a glorious narrative. Movement, most noticeably in the wild paths of clean flowing water, one of our increasingly rare treasures; time, in the form of geology's great scrolls and tablets, revealed in valleys and ridges like one of the world's finest libraries; growth, in the form of intact forests anchoring and helping heal and restore the incredibly damaged and disrespected cut-over forests; and life, in the wonderfully specific and crafted form of wolf, moose, bear, wolverine, maple, lichen, caribou all of it -- and all of it supposedly under our care, our watch; and with our dreams, perhaps, but a manifestation, an echo, of all that life.

Although there is in all of wild nature a seed or essence of the eternal, so too is there in the heart of man the magnificent yet puzzling power -- the ability, if you will -- to take away this essence; to exterminate entire species, entire ecosystems. Our own force, our own consumptions, have become geological in their immensity. Quite simply put, we're using up what little wilderness we have left.

Any knee-jerk government-loathing right-winger, drunk on the ambrosia of often-imaginary individual "rights," while shunning almost completely the associated and more mature elixir of "responsibilities," need only look at a single photo of the clearcuts overtaking the Northern Forest (as they continue to overtake the last of the West), to begin to consider, perhaps for the first time, the far more destructive, freedom-robbing foreclosure of opportunity left in the wake of such mindless industrial greed -- the greed, the American plague, of never-coming-back. The plague of placelessness.

Unnatural alliances and collaborations are beginning to arise from such realizations and awakenings -- hunters and anglers and hikers sitting down with independent lumbermen (those few who still remain), as well as the budget-harried local county commissioners and school clerks and chambers-of-commerce, as they begin to do the hard work of mapping out longer-term visions whose arc will, for once perhaps, extend further than the next quarterly earnings statement. Plans such as those for the Northern Forest, whose arc, hopefully, will cover the next 150 years with rest, healing, and preservation are as much a component of this forward-arc as voraciousness, short-sightedness and aggressive squandering has been a component of the back-arc.

In this, too, the East, and the progress of the Northern Forest, can be a model for the West, and the rest of the country, as we come up hard, finally, and for only the first time, against the limits of space and time -- the end of the timber and mining frontier, and of subsidized corporate high-grading; the end, finally, of the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

Even the most elegant dream, however, is of little use, eventually, without action. Dreams not acted upon wither and die and drain back down into the soil they escaped from, sometimes for centuries at a time, other times never re-emerging. As the history of our country has shown, our blank spots do not tend to remain blank for very long. This domestic problem that has been languishing unresolved for decades, even centuries, almost always shoved to the back of the line behind other more urgent, pressing matters. Against the near-geologic scale of a wild forest, nearly every other concern of mankind will almost always seem to be more immediate and pressing.

In the meantime, our wilderness is slipping away, being clear-cut and bladed and mined and dammed, dissolving to dream, to memory, then to nothing.

All of a sudden, it's past time to protect it. It's not too late, but it's past time.

Rick Bass is the author of 18 books of fiction and nonfiction, including, most recently, a fiction collection, THE HERMIT'S STORY (Houghton Mifflin), and editor of THE ROADLESS YAAK, to be published by the Lyons Press in August. He lives with his family in northwest Montana's Yaak Valley, where there is still not a single acre of designated wilderness. You may click here to preorder "The Roadless Yaak."

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