On Alan Wilson's table at the Oakland Farmers' Market, row after row of glass honey jars catch the early morning sun that angles down Ninth Street. Some of the honey gleams a reddish brown, some a paler amber, depending on the particular mix of flower species the bees foraged. All of it was produced by Wilson's colonies, which number a third of what he had last fall, before the infamous bee die-off that afflicted growers around the world. "I'd better get the honey while I can," one customer remarks.
The flurry of media attention given this winter's bee losses, now labeled "colony collapse disorder," has updated the world of bees for a heretofore-clueless public. Our image of honeybees is a lot like our bucolic images of farm animals -- and just as far from the brutal truth of today's corporate agriculture. We picture fields of clover, blossoming orchards, the wildflowers beneath the trees, filled with happy bees industriously gathering nectar and pollen to take back to the hive. As the bees gather pollen, they transfer it from plant to plant, thus assuring cross-pollination.
Fewer people can picture what happens at the hive, where the bees feed the protein-rich pollen to their developing brood. The adults live on honey they make from collected nectar -- sipped from the throats of flowers into the bees' honey stomachs, disgorged at the hive into the hexagonal wax combs made by the bees, fanned by bee wings to evaporate excess moisture until it reaches the perfect syrupy consistency, and then sealed with a wax cap to keep it clean and ready to sustain the colony over the winter. In order to do all this, bees rely on a diverse range of flowers blooming over a wide stretch of the year.
The honeybee (Apis mellifera) is a European native, one of very few bee species in the world to store honey in bulk and live fulltime in large colonies (30,000 to 100,000 individuals). It is the only bee with a long history of intensive management by people. For almost all of this time, and continuing today in many parts of the world, the rosy picture of bee life painted above is largely accurate. But when beekeeping meets industrial agriculture, the result is very different. Colony collapse disorder may have many contributing causes, but it comes down to bees hitting the biological limits of our agricultural system. It's not so much a bee crisis as a pollination crisis. And we may end up calling it agricultural collapse disorder.
It's a rare beekeeper in the United States who can survive by selling honey. The trade loophole that has flooded this country with low-cost Chinese honey for the past ten years guaranteed that (fortunately for beekeepers, that hole has just been plugged by new federal tariff regulations). The only income remaining has been in pollination services. Alan Wilson's bees are rented out for almond pollination starting in February. After that they go south to the orange groves, then all the way to North Dakota where they make clover honey. Wilson's Central Valley location near Merced has little to offer bees over the dry summer months except roadside star thistle and the brief flowering of cantaloupes in August. Nearby agricultural chemicals are a concern, especially the defoliant used on cotton before harvest. Just the drift from the defoliant has taken the paint off Wilson's hives. Still, this year he plans to keep his bees closer to home where he can manage them more intensively and try to increase their numbers.
Every commercial beekeeper has different arrange-ments, but each involves long-distance trucking and the California almond crop. Almonds are entirely dependent on the seasonal importation of honeybees. Growers can't get crop insurance coverage unless they have at least two bee colonies per acre at almond blossom time; some growers use up to five colonies per acre for heavier yields. Over 800,000 Central Valley acres are planted in almond trees. As beekeeper Randy Oliver says, it is "monoculture at its absolute worst -- they don't allow one species of weed to grow": mile after mile of bare soil and almond trees. No native pollinators can survive on this wasted landscape to ease the honeybees' burden, and nothing lives to sustain bees before or after the almond bloom.
Truckloads of bees begin to arrive as early as November from all over the nation -- it takes virtually all of this country's commercially operated pollination colonies to cover California's almonds. While the bees roll down the highways, hive entrances boarded up, or wait in Central Valley bee yards for the trees to bloom, they're fed a mixture of high fructose corn syrup meant to replace nectar, along with soy protein meant to replace pollen. (Some beekeepers, Wilson among them, have switched to beet syrup as a safer though more expensive alternative.) Oliver sums up the patent absurdity: "When bugs from the east coast have to be trucked to California to pollinate an exotic tree because California has no bugs, it's a pretty whacked-out agricultural system."
Oliver's 500 bee colonies -- he was lucky, with losses under ten percent -- follow a relatively short migratory truck route that takes them from Central Valley almonds to Sierra foothill wildflowers to Nevada alfalfa. He attributes his success to fewer and shorter moves, reliance on pasture forage for much of the year, and avoidance of artificial feeding. "Some of these guys move their bees a dozen times a year," he says. Popular pollination routes include apples and blueberries, which rely on honeybees for 90 percent of their pollination, peaches (50 percent), and oranges (30 percent). Farmers won't bother planting squash or melons if they can't get beehives in place by bloom time. One-third of all US crops depend on honeybee pollination.
It hasn't been this way for long. Even 30 years ago growers could rely on a combination of native pollinating insects and local honeybees for most crops. In 1970, there were 35 beekeepers in Alan Wilson's area; now there are two. As farms grew more and more of fewer and fewer crops, using petrochemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, vast tracts of land have gradually approached the reductionist goal of supporting no life at all except the target crop. It's not just the almonds -- every crop is grown this way. That's why it's called industrial agriculture, or factory farming.
Bee researchers have been calling bees "the canary in this coal mine," a different version of the birds and the bees. A quote attributed to Albert Einstein has been popping up all over the Internet: "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man." Einstein never said it, but the instant ubiquity of the sentiment says everything.
Though the media only picked it up this year, bees have actually been in trouble for the past couple of decades. Mites -- parasitic insects small enough to use bees as their hosts -- jumped from other species to honeybees, another example of collateral damage from global transportation. First tracheal mites in the '80s, then varroa mites in the '90s -- even before last winter, the world's honeybee population had declined by half in 30 years.
UC Davis apiculturist Eric Mussen points out that before the mites arrived, winter losses of five to ten percent of a beekeeper's colonies were the norm. The mites increased yearly losses to 25 percent by the late '80s, and now we're at 40 percent or higher, with some years better than average and others catastrophic. Randy Oliver says, "If we made a list of collapses of the last 20 years, this winter's would not make the top five." Last year's losses were bad for Alan Wilson, but the last four years together have decimated his colonies by over 90 percent. The only beekeepers doing substantially better are the very small percentage practicing non-chemical mite control coupled with little or no trucking or artificial feeding -- in other words, labor-intensive vigilance combined with lower pollination income. It's not a financially viable option for many fulltime beekeepers.
The difference with this winter's losses is not having an identified cause, and therefore no quick (even if temporary) fix. For tracheal mites, beekeepers developed nontoxic preventive treatments -- Alan Wilson successfully doses his bees on a mixture of Crisco, sugar, and peppermint extract. Varroa mites proved trickier, and beekeepers started down the slippery slope of synthetic insecticide use. "Until the mid-'90s nobody dreamed of using chemicals in beehives," Oliver says. Once they did, the race was on, with insecticide-resistant varroa mites evolving neck-in-neck with the newest chemical treatment. European beekeepers, who have had the varroa mite longer, have pretty much given up on chemicals and use an Integrated Pest Management approach. US beekeepers who go this route find it labor- and attention-intensive, and effective within its parameters (not eradication but healthy bees living with a smaller number of mites). According to Oliver, "We're just prolonging our agony as long as we continue to use chemical treatments."
Everyone agrees the honeybee buzzed into the 21st century carrying a heavy load of stress. Colonies were weakened by mites, perhaps by chemicals used to kill the mites, and probably by at least some of the 25 different viruses carried by varroa mites. Add in a fungus, nosema, that's tolerated by healthy bees but a problem for already weakened hives. Then there's the stress of long-distance truck travel, longer distances for more bees every year. The small hive beetle, an African native recently found in Florida hives, posed another challenge; aggressive African honeybees attack the beetle, but European bees, bred to be docile, let it overrun the hive.
Cell phone interference has been proposed as a threat to bees, based on reports of a German study showing bees unable to find their way home in the presence of high-frequency electromagnetic radiation. This particular theory must be called inconclusive at best, since the study was not designed with enough apicultural knowledge to produce reliable results.
No bee taken from the hive for the first time, as was done in the study, would be able to find its way back, since bees navigate primarily by landmarks, not electromagnetic homing sensors. Their first few excursions are short orientation flights, not blind trips in a box to a release point.
Of all these factors, many beekeepers judge varroa mites the most consistently debilitating. But there's another weakening influence more obvious and more integral to the larger agricultural dilemma. It's the stressor Mussen calls the most important of all -- bee malnutrition. High-fructose corn syrup and soy protein are not any more nutritious for bees than they are for humans (see Spring 2007), and bees in transit and between pollination jobs often must subsist on nothing but these non-foods. Compounding the problem, we're talking genetically modified corn and soy, every cell of which contains a bacterial insecticide. Are bees not insects? US studies have indicated that Bt corn pollen does not kill healthy bees or brood reared on it, but a German study showed that Bt pollen led to "significantly stronger decline in the number of bees" in hives already weakened by varroa mites.
We do know that corn pollen in general is poor bee food, high in fiber and low in protein. The Midwest, up until now the country's best bee forage habitat, this year is being planted much more aggressively to GM corn as a source for ethanol -- aggressive meaning planting marginal areas and edges usually left to the asters and goldenrods that are high-quality pollen sources in late summer when bees need to raise the generation that will overwinter. Even when bees are out foraging for real nectar and non-GMO pollen, for much of the year they are likely to be ingesting a monocultured diet due to their use as pollinators for industrial-scale agriculture -- nothing but almond, then nothing but apple, then only watermelon. They're exposed to pesticides used on their forage crops as well. Oh -- and one more influence to factor into the equation -- very hot weather can damage the protein content of pollen, decreasing its food value for bees. Global warming is kicking our butts from more directions than we can comprehend.
Given these conditions, last winter's losses can hardly be considered a surprise. Neither can the failure of bee researchers to come up with one specific cause, much less a magic bullet cure. Still, the kind of thinking that got us this far continues. According to Mussen, "the only hope is the USDA Tucson lab" which is working on a liquid feed that bees can eat all year. Randy Oliver calls this the "holy grail" of bee research. The USDA's proprietary formula, if they come up with one that works, will be patented and licensed to a commercial producer, and the whole agricultural system may manage to lurch along for a few more years, complete with pollinators hauled from Florida to California in time for the almond bloom.
How did all those almonds get pollinated this year, on the heels of beekeepers' discoveries that half (in some cases up to 90 percent) of their colonies had suddenly gone missing? It wouldn't have happened without a change in regulations that allowed bees to be imported from Australia. Bee businesses Down Under went into boom mode, sending 100,000 packages of bees to the States. A package is a starter kit of about 10,000 worker bees and a queen, enclosed in a small screened box with a sugar water feeder. The receiving beekeeper shakes the package into a waiting hive, and given proper nectar and pollen resources, within a month a new generation of bees will be expanding the colony.
The Australian influx may be short-lived, as a colony of Indian bees (Apis cerana) was recently discovered living aboard a yacht off Australia. The Indian bee is host to yet another mite that could wreak havoc if it spreads to the European honeybee. Another factor in almond pollination this year was the rental price for a bee colony, which averaged $150, nearly twice what it was last year. This was the first year in which the income beekeepers realized from almond pollination surpassed the income received for the entire US honey crop. There's talk of opening the Canadian border for next year's almond season.
To paraphrase Randy Oliver, we're prolonging our agony by continuing with this profoundly unworkable agricultural system. Suddenly terms like "organic" and "biodiversity" shift from boutique buzzwords to elements of survival. This country has 4,500 species of native insects that are potential pollinators. On the East Coast, where farms are much smaller, more diverse, and broken up by uncultivated land, native insects account for up to 90 percent of crop pollination. Studies done on Costa Rican coffee crops have shown that yields are 20 percent greater within one kilometer of forest remnants. Canadian canola farmers show increased yields by leaving 30 percent of their cropland wild. It's all about pollination.
Fortunately for us, insects are quick to recolonize formerly dead areas. Hedgerows, windbreaks, wetlands, woodlots -- the particulars of restoration agriculture are easy and already known. It's the big picture that's harder to shift, from the extractive industrial petrochemical model to the biodiverse ecosystem model. Honeybees have upped the ante, giving us all the motivation we need to change -- do we want to continue to eat?
The material appearing here is copyright Terrain magazine, which is published by the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California. (510-548-2235). The material is to be circulated for educational purposes only, and is not to be reprinted in any publication, or distributed for commercial purposes, including copying for sale, without the permission of the editor of Terrain.
As someone who is conscious of her health, I spent 13 years cultivating a vegetarian diet. I took time to plan and balance meals that included products such as soy milk, soy yogurt, tofu, and Chick'n patties. I pored over labels looking for words I couldn't pronounce -- occasionally one or two would pop up. Soy protein isolate? Great! They've isolated the protein from the soybean to make it more concentrated. Hydrolyzed soy protein? I never successfully rationalized that one, but I wasn't too worried. After all, in 1999 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved labeling I found on nearly every soy product I purchased: "Diets low in saturated fat and cholesterol that include 25 grams of soy protein a day may reduce the risk of heart disease." Soy ingredients weren't only safe -- they were beneficial.
After years of consuming various forms of soy nearly every day, I felt reasonably fit, but somewhere along the line I'd stopped menstruating. I couldn't figure out why my stomach became so upset after I ate edamame or why I was often moody and bloated. It didn't occur to me at the time to question soy, heart protector and miracle food.
When I began studying holistic health and nutrition, I kept running across risks associated with eating soy. Endocrine disruption? Check. Digestive problems? Check. I researched soy's deleterious effects on thyroid, fertility, hormones, sex drive, digestion, and even its potential to contribute to certain cancers. For every study that proved a connection between soy and reduced disease risk another cropped up to challenge the claims. What was going on?
"Studies showing the dark side of soy date back 100 years," says clinical nutritionist Kaayla Daniel, author of The Whole Soy Story (New Trends, 2005). "The 1999 FDA-approved health claim pleased big business, despite massive evidence showing risks associated with soy, and against the protest of the FDA's own top scientists. Soy is a $4 billion [U.S.] industry that's taken these health claims to the bank." Besides promoting heart health, the industry says, soy can alleviate symptoms associated with menopause, reduce the risk of certain cancers, and lower levels of LDL, the "bad" cholesterol.
Epidemiological studies have shown that Asians, particularly in Japan and China, have a lower incidence of breast and prostate cancer than people in the United States, and many of these studies credit a traditional diet that includes soy. But Asian diets include small amounts -- about nine grams a day -- of primarily fermented soy products, such as miso, natto, and tempeh, and some tofu. Fermenting soy creates health-promoting probiotics, the good bacteria our bodies need to maintain digestive and overall wellness. By contrast, in the United States, processed soy food snacks or shakes can contain over 20 grams of nonfermented soy protein in one serving.
"There is important information on the cancer-protective values of soy," says clinical nutritionist Ed Bauman, head of Bauman Clinic in Sebastopol, California, and director of Bauman College. Bauman cautions against painting the bean with a broad brush. "As with any food, it can have benefits in one system and detriments in another. [An individual who is sensitive to it] may have an adverse response to soy. And not all soy is alike," he adds, referring to processing methods and quality.
"Soy is not a food that is native to North America or Europe, and you have issues when you move food from one part of the world to another," Bauman says. "We fare better when we eat according to our ethnicity. Soy is a viable food, but we need to look at how it's used."
Once considered a small-scale poverty food, soy exploded onto the American market. Studies -- some funded by the industry -- promoted soy's ability to lower disease risk while absolving guilt associated with eating meat. "The soy industry has come a long way from when hippies were boiling up the beans," says Daniel.
These days the industry has discovered ways to use every part of the bean for profit. Soy oil has become the base for most vegetable oils; soy lecithin, the waste product left over after the soybean is processed, is used as an emulsifier; soy flour appears in baked and packaged goods; different forms of processed soy protein are added to everything from animal feed to muscle-building protein powders. "Soy protein isolate was invented for use in cardboard," Daniel says. "It hasn't actually been approved as a food ingredient."
Soy is everywhere in our food supply, as the star in cereals and health-promoting foods and hidden in processed foods. Even if you read every label and avoid cardboard boxes, you are likely to find soy in your supplements and vitamins (look out for vitamin E derived from soy oil), in foods such as canned tuna, soups, sauces, breads, meats (injected under poultry skin), and chocolate, and in pet food and body-care products. It hides in tofu dogs under aliases such as textured vegetable protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and lecithin -- which is troubling, since the processing required to hydrolyze soy protein into vegetable protein produces excitotoxins such as glutamate (think MSG) and aspartate (a component of aspartame), which cause brain-cell death.
Soy also is one of the foods -- in addition to wheat, corn, eggs, milk, nuts, and shellfish -- most likely to cause allergic reactions. Most people equate food allergies with anaphylaxis, or a severe emergency immune response, but it is possible to have a subclinical sensitivity, which can lead to health problems over time (and is exacerbated by the lack of variety common in today's American diet).
"People can do an empirical food sensitivity test by eliminating the food for a period of time and reintroducing it to see if there's an immune response, but most don't do this," says Bauman. "Genetically modified (GM) soy is the most problematic, and that's probably what most people are eating if they're not paying attention. People can develop sensitivity to a food that has antigens or bacteria not originally in the food chain, as is the case with GM foods."
Yet avoiding GM soy doesn't mean all is well, Daniel says: "One question I get all the time is, 'What if I only eat organic soy?' The assumption is that GM soy is problematic and organic is fine. Certainly, organic is better, but the bottom line is that soybeans naturally contain plant estrogens, toxins, and antinutrients, and you can't remove those."
The highest risk is for infants who are fed soy formula. "It's the only thing they're eating, they're very small, and they're at a key stage developmentally," says Daniel. "The estrogens in soy will affect the hormonal development of these children, and it will certainly affect their growing brains, reproductive systems, and thyroids." Soy formula also contains large amounts of manganese, which has been linked to attention deficit disorder and neurotoxicity in infants. The Israeli health ministry recently issued an advisory stating that infants should avoid soy formula altogether.
Antinutrients in soy block enzymes needed for digestion, and naturally occur-ring phytates block absorption of essential minerals. This is most worrisome for vegans and vegetarians who eat soy as their main source of protein, and for women in menopause who up their soy intake through supplements.
Soy contains phytochemicals -- plant nutrients with disease-fighting activity -- called isoflavones. Studies claim isoflavones can mimic the body's own estrogens, raising a woman's estrogen levels, which fall after menopause, causing hot flashes and other symptoms. On the other hand, isoflavones may also block the body's estrogens, which can help reduce high estrogen levels, therefore reducing risk for breast cancer or uterine cancer before menopause. (High estrogen levels have been linked to cancers of the reproductive system in women.)
Although soy's isoflavones may have an adaptogenic effect (contributing to an estrogen-boosting or -blocking effect where needed), they also have the potential to promote hormone-sensitive cancers in some people. Studies on the effects of isoflavones on human estrogen levels are conflicting, and it's possible that they affect people differently. In men, soy has been shown to lower testosterone levels and sex drive, according to Daniel.
Bauman believes processed soy foods are problematic but maintains that soy has beneficial hormone-mediating effects. "People are largely convenience-driven," he says. "We're looking at this whole processed-food convenience market and we're making generalizations about a plant. Is soy the problem, or is it the handling and packaging and processing of the plant that's the problem?
"Primary sources of food are a good thing. Once there was a bean, but then it got cooked and squeezed and the pulp was separated out, and it was heated and processed for better shelf life and mouth feel. Soy milk is second or third level in terms of processing."
Bauman's eating-for-health approach calls for a variety of natural and seasonal unprocessed whole foods, including soy in moderation, tailored to individual biochemistry and sensitivities. "Using soy as part of a diet can bring relief for perimenopause, for example," he says. "Throw out the soy and you throw out the isoflavones." (It is possible to obtain plant estrogens to a lesser extent from other foods, such as lima beans or flax.) "The literature is extensive on the benefits of soy, and that should always be stated, just as the hazards should be. That's science. These studies are not ridiculous or contrived, but take a look at them. Who's funding them?" asks Bauman.
"There are a lot of problems with these studies," Daniel says, adding that the 1999 heart health claim was an industry-funded initiative. "Even if there is positive information, and even if these studies are well designed, we need to weigh that against the fact that we've also got really good studies showing the dangers. Better safe than sorry is the precautionary principle. Possible bene-fits are far outweighed by proven risks."
Daniel and Bauman agree on the benefits of variety. "My experience as a clinical nutritionist is that people who have a varied diet tend not to get into trouble," says Daniel.
"We like to demonize certain foods in this society," says Bauman. "If you want to find a fault, you'll find it. The bottom line is: What is a healthy diet?"
Genetically modified potatoes can vaccinate consumers against hepatitis B and cholera. Flounder genes render strawberries and tomatoes more resistant to frost. At least that's the line of the biotech industry. But critics across the globe say there's a potentially disastrous flipside -- like vaccine plants getting into the general food supply, or pollen drift and crossbreeding creating herbicide-resistant weeds.
On March 2, Mendocino County voters may make their county the first in the nation to ban the "propagation, cultivation, raising, and growing of genetically modified organisms." The fate of Measure H will affect a raft of similar measures, now in the signature-gathering phase, in Marin, Sonoma, Humboldt, and other California counties.
"We're confident but nervous," says campaign coordinator Doug Mosel. Confident because Mendocino County is famously liberal, even radical. Nervous because an Oregon state measure that demanded GE products be labeled, which had the support of 70 percent of the electorate before the election, went down to a resounding defeat after a $5.53 million blitz of anti-labeling advertising, nearly half of it in the last few weeks before the election. The big spenders in Oregon were Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow Agrosciences, and similar corporations, banded together under the name "Coalition Against the Costly Labeling Law." Monsanto alone ponied up $1.5 million, according to Oregon's Money in Politics Research Action Project.
But the Mendocino measure doesn't go as far as Oregon's attempt -- in Oregon all GE products coming into the state, like cereals, snacks, and animal feeds, would have had to be identified. Products like these are not covered under the Mendocino proposal.
The county Farm Bureau opposes any attempt to block what it describes as future life-saving techniques. More practically, says bureau president Peter Bradford, "We feel this measure is inappropriately addressed at county level. These issues should be developed at a state or federal level. We're already strapped for cash. This would only deplete resources sorely needed in other areas." The ballot argument against Measure H, submitted by Bradford to the county registrar, is slyer: "All plants -- whether grown in your backyard or on a farm -- could be subject to regulation and enforcement if Measure H passes. Does the government need to know what's growing in your garden?" In a county with an estimated $2 billion pot industry -- compared to $156.4 million in above-board agriculture -- those are fighting words.
Mosel calls the measure an application of the precautionary principle. "The citizens of this county could decide any time in the future to rescind it once the technology is proven safe. I see a ban as putting a stop to this uncontrolled experiment whose consequences we don't know." Mosel points to evidence of GM pollen contamination -- two recent studies in the UK reported that bees carried GM rapeseed pollen to conventional plants more than 16 miles away. Studies by UC Berkeley's Ignacio Chapela, recently denied tenure (allegedly) over the GMO controversy, found traces of genetically altered material contaminating heirloom corn varieties in isolated Mexican villages.
The first legal shot was fired in Mendocino on December 19, when fertilizer and pesticide industry advocate California Plant Health Association, which represents Dow AgroSciences, HydroAgri, and others, brought suit to prevent the printing of pro-H ballot arguments. On December 30, Superior Court Judge Leonard J. LaCasse refused to change any language in the ballot material. The suit might have backfired on industry advocates -- it was revealed in arguments before the court that there are a couple dozen trials of GM grapevines now under development in California.
Both sides agree that there are no GM organisms growing in Mendocino at present, and both foresee that wine grapevines genetically engineered to resist Pierce's disease, caused by a bacteria borne by insects like the glassy-winged sharpshooter, would be the likeliest target of the new measure.
That's about the extent of the accord: Proponents see the measure as easily enforceable by agriculture officials who already inspect incoming plants, while county agricultural commissioner Dave Bengston, speaking at a Board of Supervisors meeting in December, called the measure "unenforceable" and said passage would place a burden on local farmers, who wouldn't be able to compete "on an even scale" with growers of GMO crops elsewhere. Proponents counter that being GM-free would give Mendocino farmers a marketing advantage.
Ukiah Brewery owner Els Cooperrider, one of the originators of Measure H, believes the fight is worth it: "People feel so unempowered in the world, and this is something they can do on their own and make their own issue. That's helping us."
Paolo Lugari founded Gaviotas, a small community in Colombia's eastern savanna, with hope. Lugari was worried about a time when the armies of a crowded world would fight over the best land, when millions would be packed into cities, and others would cut down forests for a place to live. In 1971, he decided to build Gaviotas in the savanna to lure people away from more coveted lands.
Lugari hoped he could derail this forbidding future by building a peaceful, sustainable community in the middle of Colombia's "wasteland," a place withered by eons of fire, trade winds, and climate change, where even coca refused to grow.
The savanna, full of the hope and humble work of Gaviotas' 200 residents, responded. A forest grew where there hadn't been shade in millennia. Anteaters, deer, and birds thrived where before they had struggled.
"They always put social experiments in the easiest, most fertile places, but we wanted the hardest place," Lugari told Alan Weisman in his book Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World. "We figured that if we could do it here, we could do it anywhere. The only deserts are deserts of the imagination. Gaviotas is an oasis of imagination."
Though our time resembles Lugari's worst-case future more than it should, there are many stories of intelligent adaptation like that of the Gaviotan forest. From Cuba to Brazil, Maine to California, innovative people are making conscious choices that benefit their communities and ecosystems. There are grandparents in India choosing a healthy community over the riches associated with caste. There are farmers in Cuba growing cash crops organically. There are foresters in Minnesota learning tree-cutting techniques from Native American ancestors. Each of these is a model for sane living in a finite world.
In Gaviotas, Alan Weisman describes the ten years during which the Gaviotans built their community out of scant resources. They devised new technologies suited for their environment: windmills for equatorial breezes, solar panels calibrated for the rainy season, pumps to bring water from deep wells.
Then, in 1982, they planted a patch of Caribbean pines - the only plant other than scrub grass that grew in the savannah's leached-out soil. Resident ecologists had debated whether to introduce a new species to the Colombian rainforest, but since the pines grew in Panama, originally part of Colombia, they were planted.
By 1991, "like children who seem to grow when their parents aren't watching," Weisman wrote, "[the] Pinus caribaea seedlings had shot up past eight feet, then ten, then twenty."
But in their strange new environment, the pines weren't producing seeds. Instead, an unexpected understory was thriving. Wild fig vines, legumes, flowering shrubs, and other riparian plants sprouted in the hospitable shade of the pine trees. Biologists from a Bogota university counted over 250 species. They guessed that birds were sowing the new forest with seeds from nearby riverbanks, or that the pines' shade had allowed the germination of dormant seeds dropped by trees ages before.
"Over the coming decades," Weisman wrote, "Gaviotas will let these new native trees choke out the pines and return the savanna to what many believe was its primeval state, an extension of the Amazon."
That the Caribbean pines took so well to the savanna was luck, or as some said, a blessing. In the early 90s, resin from the pine trees' sap provided a new source of revenue for the Gaviotans. But in 1982, when Lugari brought the seedlings back from Venezuela, the Gaviotan community wasn't thinking about forestry. They were in the era of innovation, designing technology to optimize their scarce resources.
The most significant achievement of this era, the Gaviotans told Weisman, was a sleeve pump that could tap water from a well six times deeper than normal models. Rather than raising and lowering a heavy piston inside a pipe, the Gaviotan pump leaves the piston stationary, and lifts a light plastic pipe instead.
But the invention's most ingenious quirk came from an unexpected source.
"I was showing students from the school how a pump handle is a kind of lever, and one of them said, 'You mean like half a seesaw,'" Gaviotan Luis Robles told Weisman. "I built one that afternoon." Now when the kids play on a seesaw outside the schoolhouse, they are also filling the school's water tanks.
Finding sustainable solutions to everyday problems seems easy in Gaviotas, where residents, engineers, and scientists are dedicated to imagining alternatives for everything from energy sources to waste disposal. But creativity can thrive outside of intentional communities, as one can see in Curitiba, a bustling city of 1.5 million located in the mountains of southern Brazil.
Curitiba's story begins with a street confrontation. In the 1970s, author Bill McKibben writes in his book Hope, Human and Wild, newly elected Mayor Jaime Lerner sought to transform Rua Quinze, the city's downtown thoroughfare, into a pedestrian mall. Though he had little support for the project, he thought it was crucial to keep the city people-oriented, rather than car-oriented.
"I had no way to convince the storeowners a pedestrian mall would be good for them, because there was no other pedestrian mall in Brazil," Lerner told McKibben. "But I knew if they had the chance to actually see it, everyone would love it." Lerner convinced his employees and contractors that they could pull up the pavement and put in the benches, streetlights, and flowers in two days. They did.
The following weekend, angry motorists planned a convoy to reclaim the street. As they swung their cars around and prepared to plow through the pedestrian mall, they faced, not cops, but children painting. The city had unrolled long strips of paper across the new cobblestone mall, and children were playing gleefully with watercolors. The motorcade dispersed.
This moment marked the start of a twenty-year reign of innovation, which brought Curitiba international recognition for first-rate services.
By 1993, Curitiba's bus system reportedly carried 1.5 million passengers each day, more than the daily load of the entire New York City bus system. An efficient network of orange and green buses looped through outer neighborhoods, taking passengers to silver "speedybuses" headed downtown.
But Lerner and his engineers weren't satisfied. "Sitting at a bus stop one day," McKibben wrote, "Lerner noticed that the biggest time drag on his fleet was how long it took passengers to climb the stairs and pay the fare."
Engineers designed a glass "tube station," a streetside elevated platform that allows passengers to board the bus as if it were a subway. An attendant in the center of the station collects the fares, and when the bus arrives, five doors open. People file on without delay. As the city built more and more tube stations, bus ridership increased 28 percent.
The whole city benefited from the new technology. When the public housing authority began a housing project for 50,000 families on a section of farmland not far from downtown, they first built a glass tube station to link the village to the rest of the city.
"Integration is a word one hears constantly from officials in Curitiba," McKibben wrote. "It means knitting together the entire city - rich, poor, and in-between - culturally, economically, and physically."
Curitiba's ingenious Garbage Purchase Program exemplifies this integration.
Although Curitiba's public housing authority builds more units per capita than any other Brazilian city, some people still live in slum areas on the outskirts of town. The streets in these crowded favelas are generally unpaved and so narrow that the city's garbage trucks cannot pass.
Today, McKibben wrote, people living in the favelas collect their own trash and carry it to designated points just outside their neighborhood. There, they exchange these bags of garbage for bags of food, a system that keeps the neighborhoods clean and the residents well-fed.
Furthermore, the city purchases the bags of rice, fruits, and vegetables from local farmers who cannot otherwise find a market. Thus the Garbage Purchase Program gives a boost to the farmers, enabling them to stay on the land.
The most successful communities, like Curitiba, care for people of diverse backgrounds, fostering a sense of interdependence and fellowship among them. For Kerala, a state in southwest India, integration began with the dismantling of caste barriers. Greater equality led to a similarly strong community, one that achieved 90 percent literacy, long life expectancy, and widespread access to medical care regardless of economic hardship - all without Western consumerism.
"Demographically, Kerala mirrors the United States on about one-seventieth the cash," McKibben told Terrain. "Kerala offers a model that stretches our thinking - reminds us that the alternative to our (American) way of life is not shivering in the dark in a cave."
In the 1950s, following a tumultuous decade of change, the state's parliament introduced land reform laws that gave lower-caste tenants control of the property they were farming for high-caste landlords.
Half a century after this redistribution of resources, Kerala works for all its citizens.
In the 1980s, leaders decided to boost the country's literacy rate from 70 to 100 percent, even though it was already twice that of the rest of India. Fifty thousand volunteers poured into villages and held classes in cowsheds and hospitals, on rocks and in courtyards. In 15 months, literacy rates climbed to 96 percent in some districts. Today the state's overall literacy rate stands at 90 percent.
From there, leaders created a new program to move from "word literacy to land literacy." In the People's Resource Mapping Program, organizers taught villagers to construct maps detailing the topography of their community. With the maps the communities make ecological decisions, such as where to plant trees to prevent erosion.
"The mapmakers think about human problems, too," McKibben writes. "In one village, residents were spending scarce cash during the dry season to buy vegetables imported from elsewhere in India. Paddy owners were asked to lease their land free of charge between rice crops for big market gardens." Vegetables from these gardens sold for less than the imports at local markets, another success for a healthier Keralan population.
Just as interdependent food systems are part of living sustainably, so is low-impact food production. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Cuba's sugarcane and tobacco farmers could no longer purchase the Soviet pesticides and fertilizers they had relied on. Imported food disappeared from market shelves, leaving Havana residents scrambling to feed their families.
Cuba's government called for a shift from single-crop industrial farming to small-scale organic farming to avoid widespread malnutrition. Centers promoting organic techniques witnessed a surge in their budgets. Scientists developing new composting technology suddenly saw their work tested on a commercial scale.
"When the economic crisis came," said Martin Borque of Food First, an Oakland-based organization working with Cuba's organic farmers, "The government basically said, 'You guys have got to help us out here.'"
Farmers, who once grew only sugarcane, now plant rice and vegetables, fertilize them with worm compost, and protect them with biological pest controls.
"Most of the policymakers accepted the fact that there were no pesticides for vegetables," Borque told Terrain. "But none of them believed farmers could grow rice without pesticides." So the government authorized pesticide use at large-scale cooperatives producing the country's staple crop. But farmers growing small quantities of rice for their family and neighbors (known in Cuba as "popular production") were forbidden to use pesticides. In 1998, Borque said, this small-scale farming produced half the rice in the country, to the astonishment of the authorities.
Successful sustainable projects often defy expectations. Take Arcata, California, where local engineers turned wastewater into wetlands.
Just down the hill from the town plaza, 154 acres of marshes, lagoons, and ponds stretch along Humboldt Bay. Bicyclists roll along wood-chip paths; birders spot egrets, falcons, and osprey. It's an idyllic country setting with a twist: the Arcata Marsh cleans sewer water flushed by the town's 15,000 residents.
"Wetlands need to be restored as part of the ecosystem," said Professor Bob Gearheart, one of the three Humboldt State University professors who designed the wastewater treatment system. "Anybody can run a constructed wetland. It's very easy to maintain."
Arcata's artificial wetland mimics its natural counterparts, relying on plants, soils, and microorganisms to remove wastewater contaminants.
Water flows through three ponds for oxidation, two marshes for filtering, and a treatment area where it is chlorinated and dechlorinated before being released, cleaner than the seawater, into Humboldt Bay. And building the ponds and marshes costs less than buying mechanical treatment equipment.
But the Arcata Marsh has one more surprise: Not all of the wastewater flows back to the bay. Some is diverted to the western edge of the oxidation ponds, combined with seawater, and transformed into a nursery habitat for chinook salmon, coho salmon, and steelhead trout. Humboldt State Professor George Allen built a hatchery at the marsh in 1971 to rebuild the fish populations that were depleted when excessive logging silted up local creeks.
With stewardship, wild species should avoid the salmon's fate. In the waters off Great Britain and Ireland, unmanaged fishing over the past 20 years has contributed to a collapse of lobster stocks. But in Maine, where fishers have maintained a "commons" under a self-enforced conservation code since the late 1800s, the catch grew by 25 million pounds in the past ten years.
The lobster fishers' good fortune stems partly from ecological conditions, possibly the depletion of groundfish that prey on lobsters, said Penn Estabrook, Deputy Commissioner of Maine's Department of Marine resources. But Maine's unique conservationist fishing practices "have allowed reproduction to occur at high rates," he said, "and the young lobster populations are more viable."
When lobsters became a delicacy in the late 1800s, the new fishing community decided to protect its stock by tossing back egg-bearing lobsters. Before they dropped the lobsters into the sea, they carved a "V"-shaped notch on the lobster's rear flipper, which would remain, despite molting, for a couple of years.
Though it is now illegal to possess a notched lobster, Estabrook said the fishers comply voluntarily. "Although they have gradually codified at the state level," he said, "these practices are still closely held as a culture."
Maine's fishers have also adopted specifications on the size of the lobsters they will take: no carapace under three-and-a-quarter inches, and none over five. Throwing back the largest lobsters - they produce the most eggs - was for many years a practice known only in Maine, though it has since caught on elsewhere, Estabrook said.
They've also established trap limits, set specific times of day when fishing is legal, and banned the dragging of nets. "We introduce a certain level of inefficiency," Estabrook said, "and fewer lobsters get caught."
The Amish community exemplifies the value of conscious inefficiency. This religious group of over 134,000 members sacrifices the convenience of modern technology to preserve the cohesiveness of its farming communities. But its well-known refusal to use electricity, cars, tractors, and telephones is not a result of a decision made once and never altered.
"The Amish selectively screen technology," said Donald Kraybill, professor of sociology at Pennsylvania's Messiah College and the author of six books on the Amish. "In some communities, bishops representing congregations of 25 to 40 families will meet twice a year to review new technologies."
Many Amish communities in Pennsylvania remain open to rollerblading for exercise and transportation, but eschew internet use, which they believe will fragment their families. They also forbid telephones in homes, Kraybill said, but accept business phones in barns.
This conscious decisionmaking has benefited the ecosystem, and the Amish are known for their ability to keep fields fertile for hundreds of years and even to regenerate barren lands. "Their farming methods are labor intensive," said Kraybill, noting that horse-drawn plows and harrows replace the heavy equipment that compacts soil and stifles crop growth. "And they can successfully farm (less-desirable) land because they have the time and patience to do it."
As the Amish lead their careful lives, they are instructed by their bishops to remember a Bible verse: "Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (and) prove what is good and acceptable and perfect in the will of God."
With a similar reverence, the Menominee Indians look to a lesson taught by a nineteenth-century chief as they cut timber from their 220,000 acre forest in Central Wisconsin. Ted Bernard and Jora Young write about it in The Ecology of Hope, excerpted in the Autumn '99 Orion Afield:
"Start with the rising sun, and work toward the setting sun," the chief instructed, "but take only the mature trees, the sick trees, and the trees that have fallen. When you reach the end of the reservation, turn and cut from the setting sun to the rising sun and the trees will last forever."
With this mindful care for the forest, the Menominee cull 28 to 30 million board feet of timber a year from their land.
"'The mill cuts what the forest has to give us,'" mill manager Matt Ottravec told Bernard and Young. "'And we never modify our cut for the market.'"
The Menominee also crafted a procedure to help them replace felled trees: they observe small groundcover plants to predict the trees most likely to flourish on the site.
As one state forester put it to Bernard and Young, the Menominee's tradition-based techniques are at least 50 years ahead of the norm.
One person who agrees is Mitch Bouchon, Traditional Properties Coordinator for the Chippewa National Forest in Minnesota. Bouchon is emulating Menominee forestry as he creates a partnership between the Ojibwa, who live in the National Forest, and the government foresters who manage it.
"We have an opportunity to be leaders in implementing new forestry methods," he said. "But we had to fight for this project. We were being told that it's not affordable. We said, 'We can't afford not to do this.'"
In an age of rampant waste and ecological imbalance, we may have no choice but to follow Bouchon's example: choose a good model, and fight to replicate it. Find stories about people who have, through sheer ingenuity, preserved species or restored wetlands. Look for places dedicated to equality, shared resources, and thoughtfully integrated environments. Prove that the impossible can happen, especially on a large scale. Learn how to bring barren land back to life, how to raise a forest from the savanna.
Stacy Schwandt is a student at University of California Berkeley's journalism school.