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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Nothing Left for the Kids
distributed 3/2/07 - ©2007

Two weeks ago, I mentioned a church in Iowa where the good folk admitted to liking the children's story more than the sermon. That little parish is in the heart of farm country.

Central Iowa is a place that seems almost perfectly suited for growing things. The soil is rich and deep. The rains come with enough regularity that irrigation isn't needed. There are deep roots there -- and not only for the crops. Several "century farms" in the area had been owned and worked by the same families for over 100 years.

That sense of family history shaped a memorable meeting of the church board -- a group made up entirely of long-time farmers. Tom was the last person to arrive, and he was clearly upset about something, so much so that his friends and relatives on the board asked him, "What's wrong? What happened?" as soon as he walked into the room.

Tom said that he'd been replacing some old fence posts at the edge of a field. Everybody know that he was digging deep into the good Iowa dirt to set the new posts. He told us that he shoveled through almost two feet of topsoil before hitting the underlying clay.

When he took a break from his work, he looked out across the winter stubble that still covered the field. A few hundred feet away, standing out against the rich, black dirt, he saw some clumps of lighter brown. He went out to take a look, and saw that the fall plowing had turned up some clay. He dug into the soil in the middle of the field, and found that the fertile humus there was only about eight inches deep. The topsoil was starting to be mingled with the infertile clay.

The old fence line hadn't been plowed in a long, long time. It reflected what the prairie soil was like when his grandfather first worked the farm with a team of horses. The middle of the field revealed what had happened through 100 years of farming. Generations of plowing had allowed rapid erosion by wind and water.

There was agony on Tom's face as he told us, "Since my grandfather started working the farm, we've lost more than half the soil. A lot of it has been lost since I started working that field. If things keep going that way, there won't be anything left for my kids to farm."

The other members of the church board were stunned, too. They'd all been to seminars about soil erosion, but this report from their neighbor made it all real in a new way.

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The academic ethicists who address eco-justice name four ethical norms that are central to this perspective: solidarity, sustainability, sufficiency and participation. The haunted look on Tom's face so many years ago still shapes my understanding of sustainability. "If we keep doing it this way, there won't be anything left for my kids" is an excellent description of an un-sustainable world.

With non-renewable resources -- things like oil and copper -- there is no truly sustainable use. Every barrel of oil that we use up is gone, and we will run out one of these days. The reality of "peak oil" -- where global oil production begins to decline -- will drive that point home very soon, and in very painful ways.

I have been surprised to realize, though, that the world's most urgent problems about sustainability have to do with renewable resources -- things like soil, fish, and water. We're using them and wasting them far faster than they can be replenished. "Renewable" is not the same as "inexhaustible."

  • That Iowa topsoil is renewable. It is formed out of infertile clay by the decay of plants, from manure, and the life-giving work of bacteria and insects. I've seen a wide range of figures about how long it takes to create an inch of topsoil -- anywhere from 30 to 1,000 years. But Tom's family was losing soil at an inch every 10 years, and that rate of loss has been found on almost every farm in the midwest. That's not sustainable.

  • In the 1960s, experts looked to the oceans as the next "breadbasket" for the exploding human population. But recent studies warn of a global collapse of all wild seafood by mid-century if fishing continues at its current pace. The fish populations, obviously, can renew themselves. But enormous drift nets, and trawling that destroys the sea floor, and the wasteful slaughter of "bycatch" move modern fishing into an unsustainable realm.

  • Wells can be a sustainable way of serving communities with fresh water. The underground aquifers will recharge from surface sources. But in communities around the world, water is being mined at unsustainable rates, using in a year what would take hundreds of years to replenish. When drawn down that quickly, the porous rock formations can collapse, so that the aquifer can never refill.

  • The Amazonian rainforest is a dynamic, versatile biological system. Traditional forms of slash-and-burn agriculture are sustainable, and are even an essential part of the ecosystem. Small plots can be farmed for a few years, and then be reabsorbed by the forest. But when mile after mile of forest is cleared, and used for plantations or grazing land, the soil is destroyed and the rainforest cannot be re-established.
A widely-used definition (from the UN's Brundtland Report in 1987) says that sustainable development "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Peter Huber put a perverse twist on that definition in his book, Hard Green. He wrote, "There are no limits to humanity's growth, at least none set by the external environment. Yes, we will run out of what we now consume, eventually, But before we do, we will grow, find, or invent other things."

Yes, we may find ways to use wind and solar power to replace the non-renewable energy resource of oil. We can use fiber-optic cable to replace some copper wiring. Human creativity will find ways to deal with the exhaustion of some non-renewable resources.

We hear much today about creating new bio-fuels -- from corn or switchgrass or wood chips -- as a way to deal with oil shortages and climate change. But planting more crops will accelerate the loss of topsoil. We're just trading one resource problem for another.

We are in deep trouble as we exhaust the renewable resources that are the very basis for life. When the soil in Iowa or the Amazon is gone, we can't invent a new way of growing things. When the oceans have no more large fish, we can't just find new ones. When thousands of years worth of groundwater has been pumped out, we can't create more.

A deeply perceived ethic of sustainability will demand new approaches to managing and preserving the ocean's fisheries. It will make us realize that our farmland can't sustain the intensive agriculture that is needed for bio-fuels -- or, for that matter, to feed cattle and hogs on factory farms. Sustainability will call us to much more care in our use of water.

A realistic appreciation of sustainability will force us into a recognition of the physical limits of our world, and will challenge our presumptions about unlimited growth and consumption. It will make us realize that, "If we keep doing it this way, there won't be anything left for my kids."

May we all be guided by the truth and intensity of Tom's realization.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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