Prairie Writers Circle

The Tide Is Changing on Bottled Water

I remember when the name of the game at my gym was pump 'n' swig. Weight lifters and treadmill sloggers routinely carried with their sweat towels expensive water in plastic bottles.

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5 Steps to an Environmental Revolution

I am not prone to tirades or radical behavior. I have never participated in a public protest and refuse to sign most petitions. In the classroom I offer both sides of an issue. I have a stable job and hope to someday spend the money collecting in my retirement account. In British America in 1775 I would have been a loyalist.

But as an applied philosopher -- I know that sounds like an oxymoron -- poking around modern civilization's foundation and plumbing for two decades, I see cracks and leaks growing, and ever faster. I see that the past half-century's wonderful ride, an amazing and blazing run on the carbon bank of coal, oil and natural gas, is sputtering out. But not before we clog our carbon sinks, particularly the atmosphere, triggering global climatic disruption that is already under way.

We want to see our current problems as part of the usual ups and downs of the business and climate cycles. But in the past three years oil production has remained steady while the price has doubled. Oil supplies will soon fail to keep up with ballooning world demand. Then the other fossil fuels will flare out too. But not before adding to atmospheric carbon dioxide already a third higher than pre-industrial levels and strongly tied to a long, abnormal rise in global temperatures.

I have come to this perspective reluctantly, but am now convinced: We are living in revolutionary times! We must change to a way of life as inconceivable to us as the invention of the modern factory or heart transplant would have seemed to a peasant or professor in medieval Europe.

The good news, if I can call it that, is that only by accepting this challenge in revolutionary terms will our odds of succeeding in this change go from "fuggedaboutit!" to "long shot."

"Well, change, yes," you might say, "but revolution? What about technological progress and efficiency? The environmental and sustainability movements? Isn't all that enough?"

In "Common Sense" Thomas Paine recognized this reluctance: "Until independence is declared, the continent will feel itself like a man who continues putting off some unpleasant business from day to day, yet knows it must be done ... and is continually haunted with the thoughts of its necessity."

Efficiency tweaks won't save us. Ever since England in the 1800s grew efficient with coal, only to use ever more of it, efficiency has led to higher consumption and more atmospheric carbon. Even if every car in the world were a hybrid, and every light bulb a compact fluorescent, growing demand would dwarf savings.

And though Toyota, General Electric and Wal-Mart tout their green efforts, their need to profit by increased consumption of their products is not questioned. This system can't fix the problems it has created or fit our emerging realization that Earth has limits, any more than King George could have encouraged independence-minded Colonials, or medieval scriptural authority could have embraced 17th century scientific discoveries.

Our challenge is to make a new Enlightenment, rejecting belief that we can master Earth and treat it as our unlimited supermarket, playground, laboratory and dumpster. Every human enterprise and standard needs reorientation to recognize the boundaries of our sun-powered planet.

We don't have to be violent about it. But we must be as single-minded and insistent as someone yelling "Fire!" when there is, in fact, a fire. That's not radical, that's prudent and morally required.

It's so much easier to hope for a miracle. But our best hope lies in embracing revolution -- to, in John Adams' words, "start some new thinking that will surprise the world."

Here's a short "to-do" list:

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So You Think You Can Just Add a Clothesline to Your House? Dream on

Susana Tregobov dries clothes on a line behind her Maryland townhouse, saving energy and money. But now her homeowners association has ordered her to bring in the laundry. The crackdown came after a neighbor complained that the clothesline "makes our community look like Dundalk," a low-income part of Baltimore.

Tregobov and her husband plan to fight for their right to a clothesline, but the odds are against them. Although their state recently passed a law protecting homeowners' rights to erect solar panels for generating electricity, it is still legal in Maryland for communities to ban solar clothes-drying.

Twenty percent of Americans now live in homes subject to rules set by homeowner associations, or HOAs. These private imitation governments have sweeping powers to dictate almost any aspect of a member's property, from the size of the residence down to changes in trim color and the placement of a basketball hoop.

In the view of HOAs, people hand over control of such things when they buy their home, so they have no legitimate gripe. But a growing number of state and local governments are deciding that when HOAs ban eco-friendly practices, they violate the property rights of their members and damage everyone's right to a habitable planet.

In recent years, a dozen state legislatures have passed laws that restrict the ability of HOAs to ban solar panels and solar water heaters. Florida and Colorado now protect the rights of homeowners to replace irrigated, chemically dependent lawns with more natural landscaping that requires little or no extra water or other artificial life support. And Colorado has become the third state to give legal protection to people who dare to defy their HOAs by putting up that most economical of all energy-saving devices, the clothesline.

The more restrictive HOAs cling to outdated standards that treat necessary features of an ecologically resilient future -- renewable energy devices, clotheslines, fans in windows, awnings, vegetable gardens, fruit trees, compost bins, natural landscaping -- as eyesores to be buried under restrictions or banned outright.

Meanwhile, HOAs commonly mandate large, centrally air-conditioned square footages, two-car garages, lawn sprinkler systems or synthetic lawn fertilizers and weed-killers. You'd think that in 2008, community leaders would be embarrassed to enforce overconsumption and pollution, but these property cops seem determined to impose their narrow aesthetic preferences on everyone else.

Critics say that only a strong federal law can effectively protect America's 60 million HOA residents from antigreen rules. One bill, the Solar Opportunity and Local Access Rights (SOLAR) Act, is designed to do just that, but it languishes in Congress with only one co-sponsor.

The energy to restrain overbearing HOAs may have to come from the grassroots. As families struggle in coming years to keep up with rising grocery and utility bills, on top of their mortgage payments and HOA dues, they may well put the heat on lawmakers to protect their right to money-saving conservation, renewable energy and edible landscaping.

A small but growing number of HOAs are actually encouraging green practices. But let's see them push harder: Set strict limits on house size, ban pesticides and leaf blowers, maybe even discount association dues for energy conservers. These are rules we all can live with.

They also raise a dilemma. Rousing appeals to individual freedom and property rights can be effective in, say, winning Susana Tregobov her right to dry in Maryland. But as a vehicle for environmental causes, the property-rights argument can backfire. In its more fatuous forms, it can be a favorite weapon of anti-environmentalists, who would doubtless use it to obstruct green HOA rules.

We can debate the details of the rules, but we have to keep our eye on the ball - that blue-green ball we all live on. We must enforce universal rights, not just individual rights. With human-made climatic catastrophe looming, neighborhood groups have an ethical responsibility not only to protect their own turf but also to lighten the burden we all put on an ecosphere that belongs to everyone and to no one.

The Truth Behind Tainted Spinach

Not long ago lettuce came only in heads and spinach in bunches. For a salad, someone else might do the growing, but you still did the trimming and washing. You had some control -- and responsibility -- over the process. Now salad comes prewashed and bagged. You just pour it on a plate, dress it, put it in your mouth and chew.

This convenience adds risk. You give one more job over to someone somewhere else, trusting that they are concerned as much about product quality and your health as about the bottom line on the quarterly report.

But the business of food is now big business, and it might be making us sick. Witness the spinach tainted with E. coli bacteria that is blamed for more than 180 people infected in 26 states and Ontario, Canada, including one death.

The first mixed salad greens and loose spinach were from small, local growers who hand-cut the young greens and rushed them to market, organ-transplant style. Now we have a multimillion-dollar salad industry that consolidates raw ingredients from many big producers and has little control over growing methods. Washing salad ingredients on this scale requires facilities more like municipal swimming pools or public bathhouses than where our food should come from. And if you remember sixth-grade biology, you know that stuffing fresh, green leaves into sealed plastic bags is a great way to breed bacteria.

The spinach scare has prompted cries for better regulation and inspection. But the drama over one microorganism distracts us from something much bigger: a vast industrial food system built on cheap, empty calories -- from government-subsidized corn, for example -- that feed epidemic levels of obesity and diabetes. Sometimes it seems a system more interested in finding ways to pump more high-fructose corn syrup into kids' breakfast cereals than in providing fresh, whole foods to nourish their growing bodies.

The day after the spinach story broke, I was selling at the local farm market. My tables were loaded with the abundance of fall: strawberries and melons, French beans, squashes, onions, heirloom tomatoes, sweet peppers, lettuce, chard and spinach. The spinach drew the most attention. Deep green leaves, each the size of small dinner platters, filled five bins. By midmorning they were empty. All buyers had heard about the tainted spinach, but none hesitated to fill their bags.

I didn't have to explain why my spinach was different from that recalled from supermarkets. Neither did other market gardeners across the continent. We are part of a broad movement reclaiming food from faceless, long-distance industrial providers. We're demanding not only that it be safe, but that it taste good -- and that it be grown in a way that honors the land and those doing the work. And while it's true that we could slip up and make someone sick, the results of any carelessness would be smaller, more local.

Food safety doesn't hinge on monitoring tiny bacteria. It depends on the most fundamental aspect of a healthy food system: relationships -- biological, personal, ecological and local. Those relationships are on a scale small and, so, familiar. My local customers don't need federal inspections, more regulations, sophisticated sampling and analysis, or even an organic label. They know me, they know my farm, they know the care and attention I place in every step.

If we are truly concerned about food safety, we need to know the folks who grow our food, know that they are paid a decent wage, know that the land they farm is well cared for and protected, and know that the food they grow has not been irradiated or genetically engineered or exposed to pesticides. It is this knowing that will truly nourish us and keep us well.

The Richest Inheritance

The Senate plans to act soon on a bill that would permanently eliminate the federal estate tax. The bill would benefit about one percent of taxpayers.

My friend Ed belongs to the other 99 percent. The Midwestern farm where Ed (not his real name) grew up, and which his parents still run, is not large enough to fall under the estate tax.

But farm-raised Americans like Ed -- whom the American Farm Bureau and other lobbying groups have portrayed, falsely, as estate tax victims -- exemplify some of the best reasons for keeping the tax. 

Even with his parents alive and well, Ed has already collected his most important inheritance. During those years of living and working on the family farm he acquired the essential means for making his way in life.

What he inherited goes far beyond the know-how to adjust a combine or milk a cow. It includes his thrift, his knowledge of both technology and nature, and his ability to fix just about anything. But that's still only part of it.

Ed carried from the farm the wisdom that takes nothing for granted, that knows hard work and cleverness aren't enough. He was bequeathed the knowledge that we're fundamentally dependent on soil, water and vast, unseen biological networks. He's schooled in the tricky business of taking from a farm's ecosystem what's needed, without crippling it.

Most of us, whether we grew up rich, poor or in between, on a farm or in a town, big city or suburb, have inherited tax-free, inflation-proof estates, differing in content but of comparable value to Ed's.

By bringing that heritage rather than material wealth to the forefront, defenders of the estate tax can retake the philosophical terrain they have lost to its foes.

In their 2005 book Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Fight over Taxing Inherited Wealth, Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro argue convincingly that lobbyists for permanent elimination of the estate tax are prevailing because they have appealed to "fairness and virtue."

Those who would preserve the tax are faltering, write Graetz and Shapiro, because they have appealed only to narrow self-interest -- by saying, in effect, "This tax will not affect you. It burdens only the wealthy few, so you should support it."

Government statistics show that only a tiny fraction of families pay the tax, and that it does not destroy farms and other small businesses. This has carried little weight in Washington. The anti-tax movement is perceived as having a moral message with stronger appeal, Graetz and Shapiro say.

But only in a society where virtue is measured in hard currency, stocks and bonds can it be considered a moral imperative to eliminate taxes on all estates -- not just those under $2 million or $10 million, but ones that reach into the dozens of billions. 

For almost 90 years, taxation of the nation's wealthiest estates has helped hold down taxes on middle- and low-income people, and check ascendance of a wealth-based aristocracy.

Meanwhile, it has never hampered the ability of parents to hand down to their children the means -- financial and otherwise -- that they need to make it in the world. In the current, possibly decisive battle to save the estate tax, it's time to trump the repeal forces' phony "moral" arguments by emphasizing skills and values like those Ed's parents have passed on to him -- items you don't find cataloged in a last will and testament.

The hour is late, but there is still time to convince senators that the estate tax is a crucial part of an economy that protects every family's legacy, including those treasures that have nothing to do with material wealth.

Our Reckless Chemical Dependence

Telling people to wash their faces with DDT would be like the insult "go jump off a cliff." We all know the chemical is extremely hazardous both to humans and wildlife. But it is said that 50 years ago, in the agronomy department of my university, some faculty argued the pesticide was indeed that safe.

In the same way, a fellow student in my plant breeding graduate program hurled an unintended insult last fall when he said Roundup, one of the most commonly applied weed killers in the world, was safe enough for me to drink a glass daily. I was seven months pregnant at the time. In the past few months, two published studies showed Monsanto's herbicide kills some amphibians and might cause reproductive problems in humans.
Since its introduction in 1974, Roundup and its active ingredient, glyphosate, often have been touted as harmless to human and ecological health. Glyphosate, most often sold under the Roundup commercial name, is now the second most commonly applied herbicide in the United States. Nearly 113 million pounds of it is used annually on farms, in parks and around homes, the Environmental Protection Agency reports. From 1990 to 2000, its use increased tenfold because of Monsanto's introduction of Roundup Ready crops: corn, soybeans and cotton genetically engineered for glyphosate resistance.
Proponents say that Roundup Ready crops reduce the need for nastier herbicides. Farmers can spray their fields, kill everything but their resistant crops and not worry about causing any harm to themselves, their children or wildlife.

Roundup might be less acutely toxic than other herbicides, but safer isn't the same thing as safe. A study published in June by Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, showed that Roundup killed human placenta cells in lab culture at one-tenth its concentration for field use. At concentrations one-hundredth of intended use, the herbicide inhibited an enzyme crucial to sex hormone regulation.
And an April paper in Ecological Applications showed that Roundup, when applied at label-recommended concentrations, was "highly lethal" to amphibians, wiping out tadpoles of two species and nearly killing off a third.
Monsanto insists that the herbicide's chemical properties make it unlikely to leach from soils into groundwater or persist in surface water, a claim that might ease fears about the real-life ramifications of these papers. But several studies have detected significant concentrations of glyphosate in streams near farm fields, some up to four months after application.
Roundup's full potential to cause health problems for humans and wildlife populations is unknown. But these studies make its unbridled use and promotion as a "safe" choice terribly reckless. We don't understand enough about the effects of pesticides on human and ecological health to claim that any chemical is completely safe. Developing an agriculture that depends on large scale chemical application, like Roundup Ready crops, means we're playing a game whose outcome we cannot predict.

Rather than seek out "less harmful" pesticides, we should be making an agriculture that cuts or ends our need for such chemicals. We should look to organic agriculture and to farming techniques that use more natural systems of pest control. Crop rotations that incorporate greater diversity than just alternating between corn and soybeans are chemical-free ways to control weeds. And incorporating livestock into a farming system contributes chemical-free fertilization and can be a natural check on pests.
Our experience with DDT should have taught us long ago the fallacy of making assumptions about the safety of any agricultural chemical. And rather than spouting glib comments that discount the potential hazards of pesticides, we -- agricultural researchers, parents, consumers -- need to support safe alternatives through actions like buying organic food and promoting chemical-free farming and home landscaping.
We already have enough evidence on Roundup to be concerned about its effects on human and animal health. The time to take action is now, before the next round of studies comes out.

Turn Off the Spigots

It is no mystery why Great Plains farmers irrigate. My farming father and grandfathers struggled against the weather odds in our dry western end of Kansas their whole lives. It seldom rained enough, and each year they took a gut-wrenching gamble planting their wheat.

In the late 1960s, technology came to the rescue. My father put in his first irrigation well. With well water, he could engineer his own rainfall and also grow more lucrative crops such as corn and soybeans. When his old heart finally failed him 30 years after he began irrigating, he owned five wells.

Our farm's original well happens to be among those monitored by the Kansas Geological Survey. I visited the agency's Web site recently and was as dismayed by a graph there as I had been watching my father's failing vital signs on the hospital monitor. Both tracked the approach of death -- with one significant difference. My father died naturally at the end of a normal human lifespan. We are killing much of the Ogallala Aquifer, draining water that took thousands of years to accumulate. Without this waste, the water would sustain life for many generations to come.

During his evolution from dryland to irrigated farming, my father became part of a system that can't be sustained, because it depends on burning nonrenewable energy to pump nonrenewable water from this ancient aquifer, which stretches from South Dakota to Texas. Most of this energy and water goes into producing corn that is then fed to cattle.

To grow corn, farmers plowed up more of their grass.

"How else could we feed the world?" my father would say when I lamented the loss.

But he could have fed the world more healthfully and less wastefully if he had skipped the corn and shipped beef directly from his grass to the table. Compared with grain-fattened feedlot beef, grass-fed beef is much lower in artery-clogging saturated fat and contains more omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to aid cardiovascular health. When we eat meat from grass-fed animals, we profit from their ability to convert protein from a self-renewing resource, the grasses that grew here in the first place.

I used to accuse my father of being environmentally insensitive. He knew that the aquifer was finite and allowed that "they will have to stop us eventually" -- they being the government.

"Until they do, though," he said, "I got mine!"

He loved to infuriate me with that response. I especially hated that the federal farm program underwrote the waste by offering price supports for corn.

But as one of my father's profiteering heirs, now I too am part of the entrenched and inefficient system. Turning off the spigots would reduce the flow of cash land rent into my pocket by two-thirds.

That prospect troubles me. But not as much as other numbers. There are more than 880 irrigation wells in our county. Out of our five alone we have pumped more than 6 billion gallons of water. That's enough to keep the 5,000 people of Goodland, the town nearest our farm, in water for more than 10 years. An aquarium covering a football field would need walls over 2.5 miles high to hold that much water.

Our farm recently signed up for a government conservation program that is helping us cut our water use by 50 percent. But even at this rate we are wasting water.

The time has come for "them" to stop us -- all of us. Instead of price supports for corn, Plains farmers need help switching back to dryland crops or grass-fed livestock. Among the dryland crops may be seed sources of oil that could be turned into biodiesel, reducing our nation's dependence on fossil fuels.

I would vote for any legislator who pushes to end irrigation out of the Ogallala. I believe that I am not the only farmer or farm heir who would. We grew up on this land drinking this water, and know its real value can't be measured monetarily. We will rally behind genuine leaders who will argue their own consciences and awaken ours.

Our Fragile Food Supply

Food is full of paradoxes. Currently there is enough produced to adequately feed the 6 billion people on the planet. Yet nearly a billion are underfed. In the rich United States, 35 million people, including nearly 13 million children, experience hunger or the threat of hunger. Yet at least that many Americans are obese.

The best land in America produces two low-value commodity crops that are rarely directly consumed by humans – corn and soybeans. They are used instead for animal feed and increasingly for biomass fuel, such as ethanol.

Commodity-driven agriculture brings many ills – economic, environmental and social. The short list includes soil erosion and depletion, nitrogen fertilizer contamination of drinking water, fouled lakes and rivers, damage to the Gulf of Mexico's fisheries, pesticide contamination and feedlot pollution. Often not considered: the loss of farms because government programs favor consolidation and ever-larger farm operations, and the destruction of Third World agriculture, which can't compete against the subsidized farmers of rich nations.

Rather than address these problems, federal farm and export programs worsen them while costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

Consider these further challenges:

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Uncommon Buffalo and the Buffalo Commons

Most Americans know that the American bison, commonly called the buffalo, was almost extinct by 1900, the victim of slaughter and expanding white settlement. In the past 20 years or so, the term "Buffalo Commons" has become a popular catchphrase that usually refers to another disaster: the death of the small towns of the High Plains, a result of an exodus of young people, a lack of economic growth and an aging population.

Frank and Deborah Popper, two East Coast professors, proposed the term when their study of High Plains� geographical statistics spotlighted sparse and declining population. Why not, they suggested, turn the most distressed areas of the region into a vast common pasture for its natives, the American bison?

At first, the term Buffalo Commons was a lightning rod, attracting doomsday prophets and defenders of civilized life in small towns and rural areas across the Great Plains. But in the past few years, the term has garnered a more optimistic connotation.

I've followed this debate with interest as I travel to lead book discussions for the Kansas Humanities Council. Often our reading leads us into conversations about the future of the Great Plains, particularly about the future of the place we happen to be sitting.

These occasions lead me to believe that the original Buffalo Commons model, which suggests an either/or face-off between civilization and emptiness, is really a false dilemma. Rather, the term can suggest a way of living already common on the Plains. When I ask people why they live in a place so unforgiving, I get straight, immediate answers: wide-open spaces, inconstant weather, even isolation, traits that would discourage many.

Bison know how to survive these harsh conditions, and the people who live in these places have proved equally adaptable. The decision to live among a scattered population requires careful attention to the way life is lived, for both animals and people.

When I spent some months in Chadron, Neb., I was reminded of distances daily. Even in January, a grocery clerk asked if I needed dry ice to preserve my frozen items. I was invited to join years-old Chadron dinner clubs. These examples reflect a commons concept: looking out for shoppers who might have long drives home and creating occasions to soothe isolation by coming together for good food and conversation.

For many people of the region, Buffalo Commons reflects affection for the place itself. I met young people who intended to leave, tired of living where people and opportunities are so sparse. But I also met people who moved back, unable to live for long anyplace else. The lack of physical barriers and the immense sky that intimidate some people invigorate those who choose to live here. Like the buffalo, Plains people know how to survive on their own in blizzards and drought – and economic downturns.

Recently I was back in Chadron at the annual meeting of the Mari Sandoz Heritage Society discussing Sandoz's book, "The Buffalo Hunters." Historians, bison ranchers and the instructor of "buffalo management" on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation told of their experiences with animals they have come to admire for their endurance and intelligence.

Today, almost 300,000 bison roam America's grasslands, most owned by private ranchers and Indian tribes who raise them for profit. Ranchers and researchers have observed their bison herds for decades and know their animals intimately. These people tell of family groups, the communal care of the calves and the animals� ability to survive any kind of weather without human intervention. No wonder the American bison is the iconic animal of the Great Plains. Their intelligence and adaptation embody the commons ideal.

The Buffalo Commons seems to be developing unguided by any grand scheme, and it may well be the future of the Great Plains. I imagine it not as a desolation of abandoned home places and empty pastures, but rather a region where people find rich reward in the face of challenge and adversity.

Warming the World To Dry Our Socks

Once, visiting a friend, I helped wash the dinner dishes. I soaped the plates and cups, and she rinsed them and stacked them in a dish rack. When we were finished, I asked where the dish towel was so I could dry. "Oh, don't bother with that," she said. "That's air's job."

This brings me to a very modest proposal, perfectly suited to summer. If you're wondering what (prior to Nov. 2) you can do about our deadly dependence on foreign energy, or about ever-rising utility bills, or about the flood of carbon into the atmosphere that's steadily raising temperatures, here's one answer: Let air and sun and wind do their job.

To be specific, buy 50 feet of clothesline and a $3 bag of clothespins and become a solar energy pioneer.

The average American family devotes 5 to 6 percent of its annual electric budget to the motor and heating coils inside its clothes dryer. Undampening your socks ties you into the vast world energy grid, with its legacy of mountaintop-removal coal mining, terrorist-vulnerable natural gas pipelines and all the rest. Which is OK – right? – because we all need dry socks.

But in fact we all had dry socks long before the invention of the clothes dryer. As late as 1960, according to Northwest Environment Watch, fewer than 20 percent of American households had automatic dryers.

And perhaps you've noticed that lint in your dryer trap. That's your clothes disintegrating from the endless tumbling. You won't find a small drift of lint under your clothesline.

Some people don't use clotheslines because they can't. According to the crusaders at a group called Project Laundry List, thousands of homeowners associations, condominium complexes and even whole suburbs ban clotheslines because they believe that clothes on the line are ugly. "It's akin to graffiti in your neighborhood," the president of the California Association of Homeowners Associations told reporters a few years ago. Property values could drop 15 percent, he estimated, if clotheslines flourished. Violators can be sued.

But even people who could hang out their laundry often hesitate. I was standing with another friend on the back porch in a pricy suburb not long ago. She had a perfect angle from deck to tree for a line, and I was all set to install it. "But everyone would be able to see our underwear," she said.

True enough. But drop by any mall: The average American teenage boy is fully devoted to displaying as much of his underwear as possible, simply by failing to wear a belt and buying jeans two sizes too large. MTV might as well call itself The Underwear Channel. Our grandparents may have been prudes by contrast, but when it came to their laundry, they let it all hang out.

There are a few signs that we're beginning to regain our courage. Fort Lauderdale recently passed a resolution designating a National Hanging Out Day, noting in its official proclamation: "For many people hanging out clothes is therapeutic work. It is the only time during the week that some folks can slow down to feel the wind and listen to the birds."

Some people think that clotheslines are simply old-fashioned – too low-tech. Like President Bush, they're waiting for something like a hydrogen car before they get around to saving energy. But say you dubbed it something sexier: a Solar Activated Linear Evaporation System, perhaps – maybe that would spur SALES.

Whatever you call it, the clothesline is the most elegant solution to the problem of drying clothes in good weather. And if it storms? Just leave them up until they dry again – you'll be able to boast about rain-washed clothes.

If we all used clotheslines, we could save 30 million tons of coal a year, or shut down 15 nuclear power plants. And you don't have to wait to start. Yours could be up by this afternoon.

Why Gas Should Cost More

North Americans complain about fuel costs. But to avoid a possibly unprecedented human crisis in coming decades, they should be urging their governments to allow the price of oil and natural gas to rise even more.

The present world energy market obscures the true price of hydrocarbon fuels. The Washington-based International Center for Technology Assessment, for example, has calculated the full cost of running automobiles. In addition to the price of gasoline, this includes construction and maintenance of roads and highways, oil-industry subsidies, and pollution-driven medical expenses. Depending on the range of subsidies included and the quality of available data, this fuller accounting puts U.S. gasoline prices between $5.60 and $15.14 per gallon.

American consumers enjoy the most underpriced fuel available in any major industrialized country, with Canadians not far behind. And as every economist knows, the consequence of underpricing is overuse. Wealthy and middle-class North Americans live in ever-larger energy-inefficient houses and vehicles, and so are squandering in a few decades a nonrenewable resource that took tens of millions of years to accumulate.

On top of this, the world is running out of cheap oil. Recent price hikes may be mere tremors heralding the shock to come.

Oil "production" -- really extraction -- peaked in the United States about 1970 and in North America as a whole in 1984. Several recent studies project global oil output to peak as early as 2010. The conservative International Energy Agency predicts that supply will fall short of demand by nearly 20 percent by 2020. Others show that by 2040, total oil and natural gas output may fall to 60 percent of today's supply.

Keep in mind that oil is also the raw material for thousands of products besides fuel, including medicines, paints, plastics, fertilizers and pesticides.

The human population has grown sixfold in less than 200 years. The global economy has quintupled in less than 50. No factor has played a greater role in this explosive growth than abundant, cheap fossil fuel. No other resource has as greatly changed the structure of economies, the nature of technologies, the balance of geopolitics and the quality of human life.

Little wonder that some scientists believe that passing the peak of oil production will shock the human enterprise like no other event in history. Population and consumption are still on a steep trajectory, but the rocket is running out of fuel.

The problem is solvable only with positive action and wide-ranging policy innovation. Universities should be leading the way in energy alternatives and conservation.

Meanwhile, citizens should urge governments to get real about energy pricing. All direct and indirect subsidies to oil and gas producers must end to induce conservation of remaining reserves, to encourage efficient technology, and to make inherently more expensive but necessary alternatives more competitive. This would help render the entire economy more efficient as the energy market tightens.

An unfair burden on low-income families must be avoided, but without abandoning the overall objective. Failure to act now may bring even greater inequity.

If we ease our society gradually into a world of scarce fossil fuels, problems should be relatively short-lived. Both producers and consumers respond to higher prices. People would not much mind paying twice as much for gasoline if their cars were twice as efficient -- which they would be if manufacturers hoped to stay in business.

And keep in mind that European countries already have much higher energy costs than North America, with no appreciable harm.

Governments have known about the coming scarcity of fossil fuels for years, yet they have sacrificed the public interest to benefit the energy and automotive industries. We must begin hiking energy prices now to signal the real scarcity to come.

Without higher fuel prices, we will not invest in the technology needed for a smooth transition to the post-petroleum age. If we don't act soon, the remaining life expectancy of industrial society, as energy analyst Richard Duncan has argued, may be less than 40 years.

William E. Rees is an ecological economist and professor at the University of British Columbia's School of Community and Regional Planning.

Exporting Cheap Corn and Ruin

Americans have been talking a lot about trade this campaign season, about globalism's winners and losers, and especially about the export of American jobs. Yet even when globalism is working the way it's supposed to -- when Americans are exporting things like crops rather than jobs -- there can be a steep social and environmental cost.

One of the ballyhooed successes of the North American Free Trade Agreement has been the opening of Mexico to American farmers, who are now selling millions of bushels of corn south of the border. But why would Mexico, whose people still subsist on maize (mostly in tortillas), whose farmers still grow more maize than any other crop, ever buy corn from an American farmer? Because he can produce it much more cheaply than any Mexican farmer can. Actually, that's not quite right -- it's because he can sell it much more cheaply.

This is largely because of U.S. agricultural policies. While one part of the U.S. government speaks of the need to alleviate Third World poverty, another is writing subsidy checks to American farmers, which encourages them to overproduce and undersell Third World farmers.

The river of cheap American corn began flooding into Mexico after NAFTA took effect in 1994. Since then, the price of corn in Mexico has fallen by half. A 2003 report by the Carnegie Endowment says this flood has washed away 1.3 million small farmers. Unable to compete, they have left their land to join the swelling pools of Mexico's urban unemployed. Others migrate to the U.S. to pick our crops -- former farmers become day laborers.

The cheap U.S. corn has also wreaked havoc on Mexico's land, according to the Carnegie report. The small farmers forced off their land often sell out to larger farmers who grow for export, farmers who must adopt far more industrial (and especially chemical- and water-intensive) practices to compete in the international marketplace. Fertilizer runoff into the Sea of Cortez starves its marine life of oxygen, and Mexico's scarce water resources are leaching north, one tomato at a time.

Mexico's industrial farmers now produce fruits and vegetables for American tables year-round. It's absurd for a country like Mexico -- whose people are often hungry -- to use its best land to grow produce for a country where food is so abundant that its people are obese -- but under free trade, it makes economic sense.

Meanwhile, the small farmers struggling to hold on in Mexico are forced to grow their corn on increasingly marginal lands, contributing to deforestation and soil erosion.

Compounding these environmental pressures is the advent of something new to Mexico: factory farming. The practice of feeding corn to livestock was actively discouraged by the Mexican government until quite recently -- an expression of the culture's quasi-religious reverence for maize. But those policies were reversed in 1994, and, just as it has done in the United States, cheap corn has driven the growth of animal feedlots, which contribute to water and air pollution.

Cheap American corn in Mexico threatens all corn -- Zea mays itself -- and by extension all of us who have come to depend on this plant. The small Mexican farmers who grow corn in southern Mexico are responsible for maintaining the genetic diversity of the species. While American farmers raise a small handful of genetically nearly identical hybrids, Mexico's small farmers still grow hundreds of different, open-pollinated varieties, commonly called landraces.

This genetic diversity, the product of 10,000 years of human-maize co-evolution, represents some of the most precious and irreplaceable information on Earth, as we were reminded in 1970 when a fungus decimated the American corn crop and genes for resistance were found in a landrace under cultivation in southern Mexico. These landraces will survive only as long as the farmers who cultivate them do. The cheap U.S. corn that is driving these farmers off their land threatens to dry up the pool of genetic diversity on which the future of the species depends.

Perhaps from a strictly economic point of view, free trade in a commodity like corn appears eminently rational. But look at the same phenomenon from a biological point of view and it begins to look woefully shortsighted, if not mad.

Michael Pollan, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, is the author of three books, including 'The Botany of Desire.'

An America without Farmers?

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. -- Thomas Jefferson, "Notes on the State of Virginia"

In 1801, when Jefferson became president, 95 percent of Americans essentially made their full-time living from agriculture. By the turn of the 20th century, it was 45 percent, and by the turn of the 21st less than 2 percent.

In 1993, the Census Bureau stopped counting the number of Americans who live on farms.

"Farm residence," it reported, "is no longer a reliable indication of whether or not someone is involved in farming. ... The cost of collecting and publishing statistics on farm residents and farmers in separate reports could no longer be justified."

Over the past two centuries, the nation became urban, then suburban, and now increasingly exurban. Farmers, especially those who are small-scale, full-time and living on their farms, have become politically and culturally distant to most Americans. We still have agriculture, but it is mostly large-scale agribusiness. There is little Jeffersonian farming, almost no "labor in the earth."

The desertion of the small family farm constitutes the largest population movement in American history. The small-farmer diaspora, here and abroad, partly or wholly underlies other storied American population shifts: the development of cities and suburbs, the settlement of the West, the late 19th and early 20th century European immigrations to the United States, the post-1965 Latin American and Asian ones, the black migration from the rural South to the Northern ghetto, the rise of the Sunbelt, and even the growth of military bases around the country.

The family farm is one of the last homes of old-school American ethnicity and beliefs. In 1993 the Census Bureau found, for example, that farm residents were almost all white, half lived in the Midwest, and their households were 25 percent less likely than nonfarm ones to be headed by a single woman. These differences from the rest of the nation have intensified over the past decade.

Many family farmers encourage their offspring to leave that life, and these perhaps unusually deferential children listen. Why they should move on is obvious. The United States is a nation whose metropolitan areas, despite all their evident problems, can offer better pay and more opportunity than most of its countryside. This imbalance has existed for the nation's entire life. But it was nowhere near as large or visible in, say, 1960; much less 1880 or earlier pioneer periods.

American small farmers are victims of the same impersonal national and international economics that wipe out small banks, railroads, airlines, newspapers and stores here and elsewhere. Farmers, like the others, have responded to continued pressures for large-scale, homogenized production -- in farming's case, high per-acre output. Having only this aim, their success brings about the demise of most of them and their communities. American small farmers now appear to be at the far end of a vast economic shift that gives every promise of eliminating them.

A momentous transition looms. Although the United States and other First World nations have been heading toward it since at least the late 18th century, no nation of even modest size has ever explicitly chosen to navigate it. No one knows the full implications of a farmerless America -- or a farmerless France or Japan.

Are there really the links Jefferson suggests between farming and virtue? Does a domestic population working the soil ensure a nation's social and physical health? What are the international and security consequences of the near-total disappearance of the farmer? What happens when the world's most powerful country no longer has those who work their own land?

These are at least nation-scale questions, ones whose answers turn the hinges of history. They obsess many farmers, their political representatives and their intellectual interpreters in this country and abroad. The suburban-exurban America hardly notices. In its Information Age world, the farmer has mostly been gone for generations.

Deborah and Frank Popper are authors of 'The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust' and 'The Buffalo Commons: Metaphor as Method.' Deborah Popper teaches at the College of Staten Island-City University of New York. Frank Popper teaches at Rutgers University. Both are members of the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.

Stop playing with our food

During boyhood drives to Denver, the lovely scent of baking bread would waft into our car. After a number of trips I discovered the source: a large Wonder Bread factory.

I consumed Wonder Bread in two ways. One was as the covering for my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The other was in advertisements: "Wonder Bread Helps Build Strong Bodies in 12 Ways!" I didn't know what this meant, but I sure loved squishing two or three slices into a ball and popping it into my mouth.

Only later did I learn that Wonder Bread had nearly all of wheat's natural nutrition processed out, only to receive the wondrous 12-fold enrichment conceived by nutrition scientists and industry marketeers.

As have most other Americans, I grew up with this kind of subliminal infection: Food is composed of individual nutrients, and each one does something different for you. Just take in enough of the right kinds and you'll be fine.

With the advent of genetic engineering, the All-American food processing industry takes on a new dimension. Instead of adding ingredients to foods in the factory, we will "enrich" the plants themselves by inserting genes from other organisms.

The first genetically modified plants -- mainly corn, soybeans, canola and cotton -- were altered to produce their own pesticides or to be resistant to herbicides. The next generation, under development in industry and university labs around the globe, will be nutritionally enhanced, such as lettuce enriched with vitamin C.

An illusion of genetic engineering improvements is that we can alter one specific trait in a plant without changing anything else. The truth is that any time new genes are incorporated into an organism, they have multiple effects.

For example, in an experiment that caused tomatoes to produce extra carotene, researchers found that the more of this vitamin A compound a plant produced, the smaller it became. In some unknown way the extra carotene was linked to reduction of a particular hormone related to growth.

Although the idea is to produce clearly defined, discrete alterations, plants produce thousands of different substances in ways much more complex and dynamic than our manipulative schemes can envision. The genetic engineer discovers only the most glaring changes. We want to make plants function the way we desire, and yet we do not know the larger consequences of our intrusions.

If our desire is solely an array of different nutrients, we will have no problem doing this. In fact, as one Ivy League biologist imagines, the dream crop will be one that contains as many as possible of the 13 essential vitamins and 14 minerals required in our diet.

It's Wonder Bread all over again, except that the fruit or vegetable itself will be the vehicle to transport all those substances into our bodies.

But maybe it's not desirable to turn lettuce, bananas and tomatoes into fortified wonder foods. Individual plant species have evolved very different qualities and substances that make them special. What makes them healthful might be the unified and harmonious interplay of the diverse substances each produces uniquely.

In contrast, the biotech wonder crops could lead to less food variety as the food industry focuses on production of the "enhanced" versions of major crops to capitalize on consumers' assumption that "fortified" food must be better food. And on the path toward ever-greater �enrichment� of lettuce or bananas, no one will know what is getting lost.

There's no need for such super foods. For enriching the diet of people in all parts of the globe, we should look to a bountiful and nutritious quality we already have -- variety.

Craig Holdrege, biologist and director of The Nature Institute in Ghent, N.Y., is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of the Land Institute in Salina, Kan. He is the author of �Genetics and the Manipulation of Life: The Forgotten Factor of Context.�

Weeding Out The Skilled Farmer

Last summer, a field by my house was planted to soybeans. Walking past early in the growing season, I noticed that the field was completely free of weeds. The plant population had been reduced to the simplest possible -- only soybeans grew there. These were genetically modified to resist the well-known herbicide with which the field had been treated. The herbicide had killed all other plants.

Genetically modified plants and modern herbicides are among many new technologies for farming. Some people are concerned about these technologies and their effects on human health. Others worry about the environment. I am concerned that the main purpose of these technologies is the complete industrialization of agriculture.

This does not bode well for farmers, or for the rest of us.

Historically, growing soybeans, especially controlling weeds in soybeans, has been very difficult. The family that grew the soybeans by my house are wonderful farmers. They have been growing crops there for more than 50 years. Their experience, study and inherited ability make them better able than anyone else to farm that field. Before genetically engineered soybeans, a field this weed-free would take all their skill, plus quite a bit of hand labor.

But much new technology "simplifies" farming, as the herbicide and genetically modified soybeans simplified the field next door. The knowledge required to grow the best particular plants in particular places, the valuable craft required to be a good farmer, is being lost. And the farmer is increasingly dependent on an industrial food system controlled by a very few, very large corporations.

A study by University of Missouri rural sociologists found that four companies own 60 percent of U.S. terminals for grain exports. Since then, agribusiness giant ADM acquired Farmland Industries' grain division, and Cenex/Harvest States joined with Cargill. The researchers report that four companies slaughter 81 percent of our beef. The top five food retailers' share of the U.S. market grew from 24 percent in 1997 to 42 percent in 2000.

The agricultural corporations co-opt the land-grant university research system so that tax dollars support research that ultimately will enhance their profits. Their legion of lawyers overwhelms the Justice Department's antitrust division, and their lobbyists essentially write the increasingly complex farm bills.

These companies spent $119 million lobbying in 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This dwarfs the $6.8 million spent by environmental groups and even the $49 million spent by military contractors that year. Individuals change jobs back and forth between corporate agribusiness and the Agriculture Department until the two are indistinguishable.

Increasing industrialization is generally assumed to go with improvements in the standard of living. But big companies mean big mistakes. Recent events show that the people who run our largest corporations are far from perfect, and some are willing to commit crimes to cover their misdeeds, both accidental and deliberate. These things have affected nearly all of us to some extent. Many folks have lost investment capital or seen their retirement funds evaporate.

As bad as these losses have been, for an agriculture increasingly controlled by fewer decision-makers mistakes could cause far greater problems. It's not that farmers don't make mistakes. The difference is one of magnitude. One farmer's mistake has no measurable effect on our food supply. The mistake of one huge corporation could create catastrophe. Diversity in agriculture is our best guarantee of food security.

Farmers are the foundation of civilization. They are as essential to its stability as they were when agriculture began 10,000 years ago. New agricultural technologies must be judged: Is their purpose the industrialization and homogenization of farming, or the benefit of humanity?

Jim Scharplaz raises cattle in Ottawa County, Kansas, and is on the board of the Kansas Rural Center. He is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle at the Land Institute, Salina, Kansas.

A Conservatism That Once Conserved

The rural, rocky chunk of Michigan that raised me rested on the backside of a hill, my father's share of my great-grandfather's farm. Local lore said this pitiful piece had remained in the family only because the hill hid it from view. That is, my grandfather only kept it because he needed a place where he could farm on Sunday out of sight of the neighbors.

As a boy growing up in the '60s, I also remember being instructed in the operation of our Farmall H tractor, particularly to make straight furrows. I dared to question this requirement, wondering what difference straight made to the oats. I was not-so-gently instructed as to the degree of shame that crooked furrows would bring on the family.

My grandfather may not have been as churched as the neighbors, but he was every bit as conservative, and then some. Beyond conservative, he was obstreperous and tough. Nonetheless, he still cared what the neighbors thought of him. These are not separate matters. Respect for local opinion was what enforced rural America's conservatism a generation ago.

Those of us who live in rural America today face one of two sets of conditions, both radically changed since my grandfather's time. We either live in places that are rapidly depopulating or places that are rapidly populating with sprawl. My bit of rural Montana falls in the latter category. My gulch has suburbanized in about 10 years.

During that time, I've gotten to know a few of my neighbors. Just a few; that's the way the world works now. Many of those encounters arose through heated conversations, all with the same theme. For example, once I politely complained to a man that his rotund and rottenly spoiled child was using his filthy, obnoxious dirt bike to cut furrows up the side of my land, and it was not their crookedness that upset me. The man said, "We moved out here so my boy could ride his dirt bike wherever he wanted."

The odd part is that this man and many of the rest of my neighbors call themselves conservative. I am not assuming; one only need read the stickers and flags covering their SUVs. Yet what is the foundation of this conservatism if it disregards what the neighbors might think, that is, ignores the community standard?

This is not a small matter. A misguided notion of freedom lies at the heart of the suburban cancer on the landscape. My neighbors will tell you they moved because in rural America you are free to do as you please. Where did they get this idea? Rural America, at least when there was a functioning rural America, never advertised any such freedom. Just the opposite.

All of this would be only so much personal vexation if they didn't extend their disregard of community standards to the natural community. Miss the bluegrass lawn you had in New Jersey? No problem. Rip up that stand of Montana short grass prairie. No rain? Pump the aquifer dry to keep it green. Like horses? Go ahead. Fence that pasture big enough to feed 2.5 percent of one horse then put four in and graze it to rocks.

If you are oblivious to the natural community's feedback, you can get away with these things for a while. You'll not notice the elk disappear, the streams dry up, the noxious weeds creep up the dirt-bike trails. You'll not hear these complaints if your relationship with community is fed through a satellite dish.

I can't help but imagine my conservative grandfather would have been terribly appalled by all this. He thought that to let the land suffer was a truly sorrowful thing.

Actually, I don't believe I have to imagine what my grandfather would have thought. A few weeks ago I met a man in his 90s who had cowboyed all his life in Montana. We happened to be driving past a typical suburban horse pasture, four forlorn horses standing in an acre of dust and rocks. I asked him what he thought of his neighbors. He shook his head, but he couldn't speak. He was silent. It was simply unspeakable.

Richard Manning's most recent book, "Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization," will be published in February. Manning lives in Lolo, Mont. He is a member of The Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.

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