Winter in a nineteenth-century village was a season of stilless and restoration.  Snow fell, waterways froze, earth hardened to stone.  Farmers envisioned next year’s crops, sat by the fire, visited neighbors.  They drank.  Women cooked from larders bulging after a harvest season they had spent cellaring root crops and preserving perishables with the help of smoke, vinegar, salt, fat, and alcohol.

When night fell, folks sat up a while, then went to bed, mainly because they were tired or cold, or because there wasn’t enough light to see.  Barn animals still had to be cared for in the morning, but otherwise winter was a time of reflection, togetherness, and relative leisure.  Young people, freed from helping in the fields, could study or play.  Sundays, people worshipped at church.  Afterward, if conditions were good, skaters ventured out to glide across ice.

Joesph Moriller’s 1869 lithograph depicts villagers engaged in peaceful winter routines.  This winter, my habits, homebound due to the pandemic, are more like those villagers’ than they’ve ever been.  I seldom go out.  My days, if busy, are sedentary.  I don’t commute to work.  I seldom drive.  I cook like crazy.  My circle of association is cherished and tiny.  I notice the moon in the limitless black sky.

Yet, the nineteenth century featured a type of serenity, an intensity of direct experience, we creatures of mass society cannot attain.  Its conditions were more elemental and earthy.  Illness, injury, and death loomed large, starkly menacing life, love, and prosperity.  Humans, defenseless against certain types of suffering, endured with a sincere and fervent reliance on Providence.  Modern people, so much more heavily equipped with knowledge and remedies, need faith less, living from cradle to grave without what’s divine.

Nor can we access the simplicity of a purely local, face-to-face society.  In the nineteenth century, the society of the village and household was strictly bounded, a condition the railroad and telegraph had just begun to break down.  Local people knew one another thoroughly.  The intimacy of home life was seldom punctuated, as ours is, with distressing communications of all sorts streaming in everyday.  Word traveled less.  The very mystery of what lay beyond the horizon, or beyond human ken, paradoxically promoted tranquility and intense personal joy.

Image: from this source.

Green America Will Prevail

Two cosmic figures regard the Earth, framed in a proscenium arch.
President Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate accord embarrasses us all, partly because it makes no sense politically, but also because it reveals Trump to be shockingly out of touch with the direction of the country he supposedly leads.  In the end, his failure to support his own nation’s movement toward clean energy and environmental responsibility will matter mainly as another proof justifying those who view him as a laughingstock.  Far from halting the nation’s progress toward reducing carbon emissions, Trump’s decision will likely accelerate it.

Over the past few decades, green capitalism—that triumvirate of forces combining consumer demand, emergent technology, and corporate leadership—has gradually matured and gone mainstream.  Regardless of government action, green capitalism will soon be a determining force in the US economy.  It will transform Americans’ sensibilities and requirements as surely and completely as the Industrial and Digital Revolutions have.  Among the parties vainly urging the president to hew to the Paris accord were many large corporations who recognize that accommodating green values makes good business sense.  President Trump’s harebrained decision to cling to the past instead makes him look benighted and irrelevant.

The silver lining is the galvanizing effect his retrograde action will have.  In the US, major technological revolutions (with the exception of space aeronautics) typically begin in the private sector, generating new synergies between innovators and consumers.  American government is often many paces behind, facilitating and regulating change only after new technologies and ways of doing have taken hold.  Some sources of greenhouse-gas emissions in the US will decline only if subject to tougher state or federal regulation; others are highly responsive to consumer choice.  Ultimately, the Trump administration’s intention to sit out the fight for clean energy opens up a field where many more forward-looking actors will contend to prevail.  The work of easing the nation’s transition to a green future will fall to other and wiser American leaders.

Image: Wladyslaw T. Benda, “The Earth With the Milky Way and Moon” (1918),
from this source.

Roundup Ready

The Roundup Ready Headache, © 2013 Susan Barsy

Last weekend’s March Against Monsanto reminded me of a visit we once made to a “Roundup Ready” field out in McHenry County, Illinois, an experience that was peculiar and disturbing.

Roundup is a widely used broad-spectrum herbicide that Monsanto has manufactured since the mid-1970s.  Many of us have used it on our lawns to kill unattractive and vigorous broadleaf weeds.  Yet, for decades it was difficult maximize the agricultural application of Roundup, because, if applied to a field of corn or beans, the herbicide would kill the crop as well as the weeds.

Then, in the late 1990s, Monsanto introduced “Roundup Ready” seeds, genetically engineered to withstand the effects of Roundup poison.  Soybeans were the first seeds to be so manufactured, followed by alfalfa, corn, cotton, sugar beets, and canola.  With the creation of such seeds, farmers could spray the herbicide directly on crops, from the time of their emergence until their flowering, to achieve what Monsanto touts as “unsurpassed weed control.”

Roundup Ready seedlings growing up among weeds, © 2013 Susan Barsy

Roundup Ready seedlings (top to bottom, center) growing up among weeds

The combined availability of these two products—the spray and the seed—has radically changed the way farmers tend and treat their fields.  Farmers used to till their fields to reduce weeds, a practice they now see as unnecessary.  Instead, seeds are planted and the weeds are allowed to grow up along with them, until the herbicide is applied.  The weeds then typically wither and die.  Monsanto claims that no-till farming saves energy and benefits the earth by lessening soil erosion.  It certainly saves farmers lots of time.

A Roundup Ready field, © 2013 Susan Barsy

A field can be planted without being tilled.

Since Monsanto’s last US patent related to its herbicide expired in 2000, Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, has been marketed in many competing formulations under a variety of brand names.  Mainstream agriculture has embraced glyphosate as a miracle product, one that is broadly effective and less toxic than other herbicides.

Dandelion towering over Roundup Ready seedlings.

By 2007, glyphosate was the most widely used herbicide in the US agricultural sector, where 180-185 million pounds of it were applied.  Yet indications are abundant that this “dream product” is more of a nightmare.

Thistle growing in a Roundup Ready field, © 2013 Susan Barsy

Application of the herbicide has been increasing sharply in recent years, because, as Reuters and other news agencies have reported, its application has spurred the emergence of superweeds.  Whereas farmers could once apply Roundup in quantities below what was directed, they now apply more to less effect.  And the quest is on for ‘stronger medicine’ (like Dow Chemical’s ‘Enlist’) to do battle with the new unconquerables.  Which is great for the chemical manufacturers, but bad news for farmers and the earth.  Meanwhile, claims that the  health risks of glyphosate are greater than agribusiness will admit just won’t go away.

Budding weed growing in a Roundup Ready field, © 2013 Susan Barsy

My own revulsion at the use of Roundup is more visceral than scientific.  The sort of lazy monoculture that the “Roundup Ready” system encourages further divorces farming from the realities of our place in nature.  The militant drive to extract ever more from the land on our terms is at odds with the fact that there is a limit, and that nature is far more powerful than we.

Ironically, the same plants that McHenry County farmers are intent on eradicating are viewed by local environmentalists as valuable elements in a fast-vanishing ecosystem of the northern Illinois prairie.  The farmers’ indiscriminate campaign to eradicate these plants is having a devastating effect on insects, birds, butterflies, and other wildlife.

While a portion of the American citizenry is intent on encouraging and demanding a more harmonious and sustainable style of agriculture, mainstream agriculture, moving in the other direction, is intent on defiance.  When will American farmers rediscover the respect for the land that historically has lain at the heart of the farmer’s calling?

Yellow flower growing in a Roundup Ready field, © 2013 Susan Barsy

The Greening of American Workers

FSA photo of Illinois railroad worker William London, 1942 (Courtesy Library of Congress via the Commons on Flickr)

Industrial America has ever been one of environmentalism’s staunchest enemies.  Efforts to set higher standards for food and drug safety, for purer air and water, and for cleaner and less toxic methods in agriculture, manufacturing, and the extractive industries must all contend with this constant drag.  The pollution and spoliation of our environment and the globe’s finite resources is ongoing.  One wonders what lever might be applied, in addition to the tired ones of law and conscience.

Looking at this picture suggests another form of pressure, namely, the green convictions of a younger generation of American workers.  Many children of factory workers, for instance, now refuse to consider careers in manufacturing, for the simple reason that they see it as dangerous and dirty.  And when we look at many of the ugly industrial regions on the country, with their belching smokestacks and their tankers of waste, we can easily see why they disapprove.

I wonder whether in time the greening of America’s young people might have a powerful effect in getting American industry to clean up, too.  The US economy will wither if its productive enterprises can no longer claim the loyalty and commitment of its most talented and discerning youth.

Image from this source.