Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Saving the Environment One Door at a Time

Last year after the floods came through town, a young idealist came knocking on doors looking for donations to the "Save the Iowa River" group. Huh? I was absolutely floored at the time. So much so that I was unable to wring this kid's neck and show him the devastation that just occurred and let him know that the Cedar River already did a number on our town and I wasn't going to waste a cent trying to save the carp in the Iowa river. He got off lucky with my wife saying "No Thanks." The kid today wasn't so lucky.

Let me begin by saying that I was an idealist once, for about 2 months in 7th grade I was going to help save the world. I had joined the debate team and the topic was renewable energy. My partner and I decided that we would argue on the side for renewable energy, because solar, wind, and geothermal were the "new" thing and were just about to make a breakthrough into the mainstream. Like I said after about 2 months, I found out that it was all a pipe dream, not only that, I also found that the stuff we were using wasn't near as bad as "they" said it was. Coal, oil, and nuclear (yeah, this was when Chernobyl was still fresh on people's minds) were actually what had caused the quality of life on this earth to increase more in 100 years, than it had in all the previous history of mankind. (Not, only that, but solar and wind turned out to not be as "green" as they are touted.) Twenty years later, solar and wind are still the "new" thing and about to make a breakthrough in the mainstream.

Since that time, I have spent a great deal of time learning about energy and food (the things that make life possible). I have worked in the oil industry and the nuclear industry and seen the good and bad (and I will say there is far more good than most people could ever imagine and far less bad than people believe). Which brings us to tonight. A knock at the door.

I was brushing my teeth and my daughter went and looked and came and told me that she didn't know who it was. So I answered it. Yes, it was an idealist (probably out of school for the summer) working for a non-profit to save the environment. He started off on his spiel about how they are working to eliminate the use of coal and oil. Normally, I would stop them right here and tell them no thanks, but I was in a mood to see if this kid new how to think (that might be from reading several idealist blogs of people who don't know how to think). So the conversation went something like this (I am in maroon, he is in green):

"So you support the nuclear plant up the road?"

"Well, that is one form of energy that is a little better than coal and oil, but we are trying to get more solar and wind developed. And do you know that with all the pesticides and fertilizer we are polluting our rivers?"

OK, first rule of trying to convince me has been broken, don't change the subject. In my mind I was slightly irritated that I didn't get to discuss about base loading and peak loading for energy production, a comparison of the land areas required for equivalent power from a solar plant or a wind farm, the pollution that is produced from "fossil fuel" plants compared to nuclear plants compared to the production of solar cells, or the relative costs of energy and what would happen to peoples lives as their energy costs went up. But he wanted to talk agriculture, so I bit.

"So we shouldn't produce food?!"

"No, but we can do it without using so many chemicals."

"Do you realize how many people would die of starvation if we weren't using chemicals? Do you really think we could produce as much food as we do without chemicals?"

"Of course, we are in Iowa, we're the breadbasket."

"Do you know why we are the breadbasket?"

"Because we have the best soil."

"Right, we have the best soil, and by adding the right pesticides and fertilizer, we have yields that dwarf what we could do otherwise."

"I think we could produce enough food without them."

"And there you are wrong. We have had an agriculture society for 7000 years. Not until the last 100 years or so have we had food production outpace population growth by 2 to 1. That was when we seriously started to use chemicals to aid in farming. What you are advocating would cause 2 billion people in this world to starve to death. Do you want to kill 2 billion people?"

"Well...frankly there are already people starving."

"Are they starving because there is no food?"


"So, why are they starving?"

"Because there are problems with the distribution of the food."

"Right, why are there problems with the distribution?" He's catching on, there may be hope yet.

"I don't know."

"Because of governments. Some of them are so corrupt and power hungry that they will allow their people to starve so that they can accumulate wealth. We send the food to their governments and they hoard it or sell it to others for a profit, and their people starve. Ethiopia and Somali at one time could produce food to feed their people. Then they had got a corrupt government who helped to destroy the agriculture base and the people starved. The same thing is happening right now in Rhodesia or Zimbabwe. The government has run all of the farmers out of the country and what once was a food exporting country is now starving. People are more important to me than saving the environment. I am not going to support policies that purposely try to starve 2 billion people."

I was going to talk about Victor Borglum and how people like him have saved countless lives. But, the idealist had had enough, thanked me for my time and left. There was so much more I wanted to pound into his young skull. Hopefully, he actually critically looks at the policy he is advocating and decide whether it is something he wants to support.

I get real upset about people who spout off nonsense like converting everything over to organic farming or the like. If you want to support an organic farm, be my guest (I have my own vegetable garden that is fertilized with compost - but I don't pretend that it is going to feed the neighborhood, let alone my household). Whether you believe the world is overpopulated or not, the fact remains there are 6 billion people in this world and we should do our best to feed every one of them. Organic gardening ain't going to cut it. Unless you can find 2 billion people that are willing to die so you can feel good about the water that runs by your house, then just keep washing the pesticides off of your apples. I don't mind a few drops of chemicals in the thousands of gallons of water I use each year, last time I checked, our life expectancy is quite a bit better than when all the rivers were "pristine" (except of course for the occasional rotting corpse of a buffalo that fell in).

The other thing I get hacked at is when industrialized idealists start prattling about needing to save the rainforests in third world countries. Their idea is to petition the government or in the extreme case go down and tie themselves to the trees. Here is a clue, people in third world countries that are living a subsistence lifestyle don't have any other choice than to cut down the rainforest to make charcoal or firewood, or raise a few head of cattle or grow some crops for one season. They are worried about one thing and one thing only - putting a little bit of food in their bellies. Some of them spend upwards of 50% of their waking time getting food for the day. I spend about 20 minutes at work and 10 minutes at the grocery store to get enough food for my family for one day. And I'm not that different from most Americans in this regard.

Do you know what will save our rainforests, wildlife, or the environment? Wealth and personal property, although some may argue that they are one and the same. Up until the middle 1800s, there wasn't much of either in the world (in spite of the rooms of Aztec gold). And would you know it that every civilization treated the environment "horribly." There were no groups that were at one with nature. The only reason that the whole world wasn't wiped out was because the population was so small. Then the industrial revolution began and the majority of people in industrialized countries were not employed to produce food. Machines took over for the work that man did and mankind was able to invent and experiment like never before. Wealth was created and some countries even allowed private property (ownership of land by the individual). People now had time to actually care about the environment.

The forests in the US (while having been decimated since the arrival of the Europeans) began to make a come back like never before. Logging companies plant more trees each year than are harvested. The amount of forested land in the US is on an increase and some estimates are that there is more forested land now in North America, than there was when Amerigo Vespucci set foot on it 500 years ago. Because we don't worry about where our next meal comes from, we have the time to "save the environment." Because we have private property protections, we have been able to generate great wealth and have the money to "save the environment." Somehow, people believe that a third world country can change their ways in the matter of one summer. It only took the USA about 150 years, and that was with ideal conditions.

So no, I will never support some organization that comes knocking on my door to raise money or awareness for any environmental cause. I say, get out there and do something (besides begging for money). I respect organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Doctors Without Borders, and the Salvation Army. They actually try to help their fellow man. If you think we need to get rid of pesticides, then go to a good Ag school and learn about agriculture, then start experimenting and find what will work that won't cause the death of 2 billion people. Don't come and try and tell me that some method we have already tried for 7000 years will do it, when it didn't before. And if you want to build a windmill or a solar plant, educate yourself on energy production and distribution. We didn't get the way we are by some accident. We have 7000 years of people tinkering and thinking, and 100 years of serious tinkering and thinking, so unless you provide convincing evidence to the contrary, I am going to stick with the status quo.

I continue to look at the evidence for both sides, and the idealists have always come up short. Its
OK, I was one once to. It's a phase everyone goes through. Just don't get stuck in it too long. We need all the productive people in the world we can get, otherwise, we're never going to be able to pull places like Bangledesh and Chad out of misery.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this teaching moment. Our daughter watched the whole thing and saw you in an approving light.