Monday, October 31, 2011

Fraction of Really Big Question

Did you see the photo of the little tyke in Manila who has been designated as Number 7 Billion contemporary human? Handy graphic to lead into very serious newspaper articles about population and natural resources, which ineluctably lead to mention of the consensus estimate that there will be a Number 9 Billion baby sometime in the decade of the 2050s and then next an allusion to the Big Question of whether the world can feed nine billion people. Frequent resort to the word "Malthusian."

Many people I know are thinking about the agricultural requirements of feeding nine billion. Can it be done and, if so, through what means and with what consequences to nature and human societies? One subset of that larger inquiry – and one I've been working on – has to do with getting animal protein from the sea. Can humans adopt the agricultural model for the oceans? Will they? Should they?

Well, they (we) can try. But on current evidence, it's hard to envision an aggregate worldwide mariculture that is simultaneously capable of contributing a significant fraction of the human diet as well as protecting marine biodiversity and the habitats that sustain it. So far, it looks as if raising shrimp and raising oysters, performed to reasonable standards of best practice, don't cause intolerable damage to near-shore systems. Let's postpone defining intolerable.

But the biggest saltwater farm animal, by far, is the salmon, and salmon-farming is not good. Salmon-farming works, obviously. And if you put aside concerns about taste (versus wild salmon) and antibiotic loads, farmed salmon does pretty well on a pumpernickel bagel with a shmear. The problems are these: 1. The salmon is a carnivore. Salmon farmers feed their charges meal made from grain and other fish. Salmon farming shares all the problems of terrestrial livestock confinements and adds the additional whammy of depleting wild fish stocks. 2. The domesticated salmon escape their pens, breed with wild salmon, and produce offspring discernibly less robust than their wild parent. Any salmon needing to swim upstream better be robust.

Maybe there are ways to make good money and help feed billions of people by raising non-carnivore marine animals that contribute to the well-being of a particular marine ecosystem. After all, land herbivores have a big role in organic farming. So let's not be dogmatic. On the other hand, don't make any bets.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cosmopolitan Tribalism

ONE OF THE THE ATTITUDINAL REQUIREMENTS of life among the opining classes is the need to balance loyalties to the global and the local. We are concerned, for example, for the well-being of both poor farmers everywhere and the post-industrial farmers trying to make a go out of forty acres in the Berkshires. It's important to demonstrate that we are aware of multitudes on multitudes of layers between total global and total local (lest we be called naive or, worse, thinking within an insufficiently broad context), but most of us concentrate our effective energies on intermediate levels: the United States of America, for example, or the regional high school district or – that most insidious of all arrangements – the regional youth travel-soccer federation.

The older I get, the less attached I am to the construct of the national state. I do love the USA, but mostly because of my familiarity with it and my appreciation of its general entertainment value. When it comes to things I regard as important – immigration policy, say, or environment, or security – I want to operate in no context smaller than North America. Naturally, this big-planet perspective carries with it the danger of being, or appearing to be, another meddlesome American who wants to impose projects to improve other societies without the bother of improving his own. That I feel justified in my overseas meddling because of a complementary passion for small third-growth New England forests is a pretty frail excuse.

A much less troublesome impulse is loyalty to entities for whom loyalty once was (literally) a matter of life and death but now means little in any consequential sense. Hence I seem to be increasingly faithful to things that no longer matter. To Ireland, for example, and to Irish national sports teams in particular. Despite its recent doleful financial misfortune, Ireland remains a mildly-prosperous, generally-enlightened, beautiful small island country off the western fringe of the European peninsula. Independence and EU membership and recent Irish music and the revolt against the Roman Catholic Church have all contributed to making the place far better than it was when the country was a cause celebre of anti-imperialism. Not blaming England for everything unfortunate has been a major cultural achievement.

So in terms of international sport competitions, rooting for Ireland these days doesn't mean you're making any kind of statement about proud little venerable nations gaining payback for the oppression of hegemonic neighbors. Well, maybe a little bitty statement. In any case, I have now become a spirited Ireland fan. In rugby especially. Two years ago, we shocked the world (more or less) by winning all five matches to capture the renowned (more or less) Six Nations Cup. This year, in the quadrennial Rugby World Cup, the lads upset Australia but were ousted in the quarter-finals by the fellow Celts of Wales. They did paste England, though, dealing a hard blow to the invidious Saxon invader who, with God's help, will someday be driven from these islands for all time.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


THIS WEEK I AM IN ARIZONA, southeast of Tucson and close to the border. The melancholy task is to bid thanks and goodbye to the nearby grantees of The JM Kaplan Fund: Malpai Borderlands Group; the Rancho El Uno project of The Nature Conservancy, Mexico; the Janos research station of the Instituto de Ecología of the National University of Mexico; the Northern Jaguar Project; and the joint effort of World Monuments Fund and Instituto Nacionál de Arqueología e Historia to inventory, repair and protect a long-undiscovered network of cliff villages in Chihuahua. Wonderful people, important work. But after eight years of support and twelve months of plummeting stock holdings, the trustees of the Kaplan Fund have decided to offer the groups "farewell grants" to carry them twelve months past the expiration of their current awards. Sad but fair.

The upside is that I can pay another visit to a favorite landscape and a wonderful cross-border culture. And my base of operations is ideal for appreciating both. I am with Athena and Bill Steen, in a guest house of their Canelo Project. The Steens are probably the most widely-recognized leaders of the home-built-house movement in general and straw-bale construction in particular. [Check out their books – Small Straw Bale; Built By Hand; The Handcrafted Life of Don Juan Morales – all available on Amazon.] Canelo Project workshops draw colleagues and students from around the world, and each workshop produces at least one durable structure. The result is a hamlet of lovely small buildings, each serving a different function, each shaped and colored distinctively. In between workshops a small number of students stay on as resident interns, joining a year-round crew of the Steen teenagers (woodworker and metalsmith, repectively) and Don Juan Morales, on permanent loan from a village near Ciudad Obregon. Don Juan knows how to do anything, eg, make rope, dress game, distill beverages. The resulting mix is bilingual, multi-ethnic, creative and – most impressive of all – resourceful and skilled little community. Lots of Canelo and Borderlands photos here and here.

On Friday, it's off to Chicago and a Board meeting of The Land Institute, Wes Jackson, President. Perennialize the landscape! Transform agriculture! More on all that later.

Friday, October 28, 2011

D-Day Anew

THE ANNIVERSARY OF D-DAY occasioned another graceful speech from Barack Obama; fresh examples of how the British - who fielded the fifth-most effective army in 1941-1945 – remain world champs at commemorating battle; and some news reports purporting to reveal new revisionist takes on the history of the Second World War.

Brits first. Though my only credential is slight, at best – Adjunct Professor, "War and Society, 1789-1945," UMass, 1986-87 – it seems to me that the stylistic facility of British historians tends to brainwash us poor colonials with a version of the 20th Century that is drenched in Anglocentric bias. I can get good and steamed about this, but then find myself in the situation I faced this past Sunday. The only online news source that provided extended video coverage of the President's speech – and extended video coverage of parachute re-enactments and 24-gun salutes and Carla Bruni – was I paid a long visit to the Beeb, dammit. The sun never sets on a British Empire of ancient bemedalled veterans marching smartly in dark suits and berets that fit them. And their war stories! There are few things better than the fitfully comprehensible first-person report of Angus MacPhyfe about the attack on a key crossroads by The King's Own Regiment of Highland Fusiliers. A national genius, I'm afraid.

And the historiographic revisionism? Nothing new. Same old story since the mid-1970s: man for man, gun for gun, tank for tank, the Western Allies were much inferior to the Wehrmacht. We beat Germany because the Russians did most of the fighting, by far; because we gained air superiority; because our artillery units were good; because we were highly motorized; because we didn't hesitate to kill French people if it meant we could thereby kill Germans; because we had a couple of crack Airborne divisions; and mostly because we could field a sufficient mass of understandably frightened citizen-soldier conscripts who summoned enough courage to keep going forward, artlessly and victoriously.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Big-Leaguer Demography

Jersey City, New Jersey, 1946, Montreal Royals versus Jersey City Giants. The man in the photograph wearing that awesome Royals uniform is Jackie Robinson. The next season Robinson will become the first black man to play US major league baseball. As almost everyone knows, that barrier-breaking opened the doors of big-time baseball to a population rich in talent and ambition. But as baseball nuts can tell you, that influx has gotten smaller over the past two decades. African-Americans constituted twenty percent of major league rosters in 1990 but only ten percent in 2011. In the general US population, African-Americans make up twelve percent of the total. So it's not as if some grave injustice is at work here; it's just that the percentage of American black men in major league baseball percentages contrasts so starkly with comparable figures for the National Football League (73%) and the National Basketball Association (80%).

But here's a twist. Latin American big-league ballplayers of African descent are turning up in ever greater numbers. Among all Latin American players, who now constitute 30% of major league rosters, I would estimate that at least 60% would be considered African-American if they had been born in the US and didn't speak Spanish. Unlike most young black American athletes nowadays, a typical young black Dominican, Puerto Rican, or Cuban kid is still fixated on beisbol. So the percentage of MLB rosters filled by men of African descent is at an all-time high.

But maybe not for long. The next big demographic influx seems to be coming from East Asian: Japan, Korea, Taiwan. Keep 'em coming. I love it.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Getting Around

SO MANY READERS HAVE ASKED about my carbon footprint that I thought a clean breast is in order. In personal life, I am better than most North Americans, emissions-wise, which is to say ecologically catastrophic but a little less so. In professional life, I am all bad. I travel frequently on jet planes; I drive many miles in rental cars (frequently upgraded to "mid-size" models, which I like); I stay in overheated and overcooled hotels; I eat room-service meals from frozen foods drawn from the far corners of the planet. I do these things in the name of environmental conservation, in the wobbly hope that profligacy now is a small price to pay for the low-carbon happiness that our work will bestow on the Twenty-Second Century. When Amory Lovins flies around the world to give talks on energy efficiency, he calculates how many flourescent lightbulbs he will have to induce his listeners to use for him to justify the CO2 emissions occasioned by his air travel. I am working on a similar kind of metric, to be announced at an appropriate time.

People In The Future – as we used to say – will probably be able to do all the things that I do now, but I bet there won't be as many options within reach of as many people. The most optimistic alternative-energy scenario will not allow non-VIPs to fly on planes anywhere near as much as we do now. Driving will cost a lot more. Heck, eating will cost a lot more. It may not be so bad. "Staying home and being decent," as Wendell Berry says, is basically a good idea. But still, our time here – this twilight of the Petroleum Age – has afforded a lot of unsustainable fun and diversions to about 500 million people or so. These days will be smothered in nostalgia in about fifty years.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


AN IDEA LIKE NO OTHER. "Our purpose is to develop an agricultural system with the ecological stability of the prairie and a grain yield comparable to that from annual crops." That is the core ambition of The Land Institute, Salina, Kansas, Wes Jackson, President. I serve as Chairman of the Board and am consequently biased. Still, I think it is a fine purpose, and none more important.

Contemporary American agriculture is a failure disguised as success. The success lies in high rates of productivity and the provision of inexpensive food for domestic and foreign tables. The failure is its unsustainable treatment of a key resource: the soil. There is chemical pollution, of course, but the more fundamental failure is that standard agriculture compels losses in the amount of soil and in the degree of soil fertility. These deficits are compensated by injections of fossil-fuel-based fertilizers. The cost of the fertilizers depends on the price of natural gas which, over the long haul, is going only up. And the eroded soil and the fertilizer run-offs travel down the Mississippi and make Dead Zones in the Gulf of Mexico. It's not a system with legs.

Hence the scientists at The Land Institute are breeding perennial polyculturals: plants that feature deep roots, that produce seeds year after year, and that derive pest and drought resistances through their proximity to other plants. Minimal soil erosion, little or no fertilizer inputs, lower costs for machinery and fuels. The particulars are summarized in an excellent article in Scientific American. Staff scientist Jerry Glover was recently profiled in Nature.

For years, Wes and his staff have had to endure the hauteur of the Ag Establishment, the myopia of the funding world, and the impatience of audiences ready to eat a perennial sandwich. Well, darn it, now there is a prototype: a perennial grass with deep roots and plentiful grain seeds. The new plants still number only in the hundreds, and tests and more tests are required. But the seeds can be ground into flour, and the flour beat into pancake batter, and the pancakes taste delicious. ¡Vamonos!


THE INTERNET CREATES AND DESTROYS COMMUNITY, we know, and I am characteristically part of the problem. I shirk PTA and Little League. My civic intensity is off the charts, however, when it comes to online communities that share embarrassing obsessions. These days my favorite is UniWatch, a blog run by Paul Lukas out of Brooklyn. Every day UniWatch engages its readers in insanely fine-tooth combing of the past and present of athletic uniforms and insignia. Lukas just polled his most learned followers on their favorite major league baseball caps of all time. (See here, here, and here.) They are all opinionated – way opinionated – and most carry a bias for Old School. I love them, in the one-dimensional way that boys have.

I have always liked design in general, from advertising to architecture. I can't draw very well. But equipped with felt-tip pen and my fellow design-freak DJ, who knows computers and design history both, we've been able to design logos and booklets and websites for Citizens Union, the Kaplan Fund, and a few different independent ventures.

These days, though, I worry a bit about being part of another problem: logo creep. Corporate logos are everywhere, you will have noticed, on signs, shirts, hats, bags, vehicles, buildings, and bodies. And – worst of all – on sports uniforms at all levels. Every college football and basketball player, not excluding the Ivy League, wears uniforms designed by mega-corporations and prominently featuring their mega-corporate logos. We UniWatch guys hate the Swoosh.

The dialectical response, of course, is DIY. There now exists a critical mass of crazed men (not too many women, quite honestly) who make their own uniforms at home, uniforms of pro teams they follow or of imaginary teams that exist only under their caps. The finest flowering of this trend may be the effort of Robert Marshall to make his own bobble-heads for his own make-believe teams. I won't disclose the particulars of the custom order I just sent him.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Bisons and Borders

ACROSS FROM SOUTHEAST ARIZONA AND SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO stand the peaks of the Sierra Madre. The mountains are inhospitable to human settlement (though handy for drug smuggling) and home to significant populations of bears, eagles, jaguars and parrots. To the east and west of the Sierra lie large grasslands. Here humans rule. The great Mexican prairie herds of bison and antelope have been displaced by cattle or – worse – by center-pivot irrigation farming. Now, after a break of two hundred years, the bison are coming back.

They are returning to the northern Chihuahua town of Janos, where teams from the Instituto de Ecología of the National University and the Mexican affiliate of The Nature Conservancy have established the most impressive prairie restoration site in North America. Janos is now home to the world's largest population of prairie dogs and the world's largest population of golden eagles. Bison will be re-introduced to Janos next month (the only herd in Mexico) and most of the huge border municipality will be declared a a National Biosphere Reserve. Saludos.