This is my final “reflection” I did for an Environmental History course at UMass Amherst.
HIST 383 – American Environmental History
May 7, 2014
Is the Party Over?
As historians, or in our case, students who study history, we have a predisposition to think of history as a series of events which happened across a multitude of dates. When we think about history, we naturally think of dates and time and prepare ourselves to memorize factual events tied to dates. In this current study however of American Environmental History, we have discovered the events we humans were participants in, and how they shaped the history of our country and our planet.
Historians will often point to the actions of an individual or a group of people in how that action shaped history. The decisions of men and women through the ages has altered the course of history, like a series of forks in the road. Freedoms won and lost due to words and actions of people. Yet through all this, in the background, was the land.
Like a silent character, forming the backdrop for human-driven history, the land itself has a history of its own. Some would argue that without man’s presence, or any human interaction for that matter, the life of the land would go on quite abundantly. As sure as the sun rises and sets, the moon’s glow across the night sky, or the tides flowing, the Earth would sustain itself and the Nature abound it.
The Earth is said to be approximately 4.54 billion years old. Although some meteors have dated to 4.8 billion years old which is the upper limit to the Earth’s age. Others argue the Earth is between 6,000 – 10,000 years old. The ocean covers 71% of the Earth’s surface and provides 97% of the planet’s water. The volume of water is 321 million cubic miles of water. These are constants, with data courtesy of noaa.gov to give some scope to the size of our planet.
With these values in mind, it is easy to feel so small and insignificant with regard to one’s impact on the planet. “What kind of burden could I possibly put on the planet?” “What sort of dent, if any, will I leave on the environment?” were not the sort of questions Homo sapiens were probably thinking when trying to learn to walk upright. With the planet’s population rapidly approaching 7.2 billion people, it is estimated we will approach the lower end of the sustainability threshold around 2050 when the population is expected to exceed 9 billion people. Journals such as Scientific American seem to feel that 10 billion people is about the number where food production becomes an area of concern.
As we have observed in this class, early settlers did not seem to have much of an impact upon the land. But even variations in Northern New England tribes versus more Southwestern New England showed seven times the number of people per cubic mile. Farming techniques such as planting legumes with crops to replenish nitrogen were learned and passed on by these early people. These techniques are still valid today, as one article in Organic Gardening explains the importance of crop rotation as such:
“There are other crops that also use up nitrogen rapidly. They tend to be the leafy and fruiting crops, such as lettuce, cabbage, and tomatoes. In contrast, root vegetables and herbs are light feeders. Peas, beans, and other legumes add nitrogen to the soil but need lots of phosphorus.
The general rule of thumb for balancing out soil nutrients is to avoid planting the same general category of crop (root, legume, and leafy/fruiting) successively in the same place. It’s best to follow nitrogen-fixing legumes such as peas or beans with nitrogen-loving leaf or fruiting crops such as lettuce or tomatoes. Then, follow the heavy feeding crops with light-feeding root crops.”
So with all this knowledge and experience, and the traditions humans have been witness to, and the stories told over generations, we find ourselves in the year 2014 experiencing first-hand, extreme weather conditions and evidence of depletion of natural resources. Global warming has gone from being an issue of great debate, to gaining widespread acceptance for the reason behind many problems of drought and extreme weather. Most adults would agree the frequency and severity of these events has only been evident the past 20 years and seemed inexistent 30 to 40 years ago.
So could it be, we have so damaged our planet Earth in less than 160 years?
No doubt the industrial revolution and advent of train transportation in the late 1800’s was the beginning of the end. Call it haphazard progress, fueled by a mercantile society, the population moved from the farms to the cities. Evolving from simple people to educated people, all the while falling prey to consumerism and becoming zombies at the same time. A lack of appreciation settled in as suddenly goods from all around the globe made their way onto store shelves. Manual labor, self-sufficiency and family life gave way to careers, money, and material goods. It’s shameful and akin to driving fast expensive cars and yet not being able to wipe our own asses.
Sadly most people aren’t yet aware there is a lesson to be learned here. A lesson on choices and learning how to be self-sufficient. The choices we make and lifestyle changes we can implement can have a real impact in reducing greenhouse gasses, of reducing strains on fresh water, or the reliance on fossil fuels or the consumption of meat. All it takes is baby steps. Moving slowly is better than not moving at all, but we are surely running out of time.
“Running out of time” to make a positive impact is something I have given much thought to this semester. I had studied oceanography last semester and learned about climate change and factors that affect the weather. Being an advocate and spreading the word is often easier said than done, especially when wishing to make changes that affect the planet on a global scale. If we think about the speed of change, and how our human actions caused pollution and disruption of balance on the planet, there is no greater evidence for anthropogenic climate change.
In addition to speed of change, there is speed of adoption. How quickly can we get the adoption of conservation-savvy ways to the masses? We don’t have two generations to bring this through school curriculum to hopefully influence the population, change needs to happen now, and for any sort of real results, changes need to be pretty severe and to happen immediately.
We can attend town and local meetings, to attempt to influence matters of food quality in the schools, for energy conservation, water quality and water consumption, and think of new ways to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. When we shop, we can consider how far a grocery item has had to travel, taking a hint from Michael Pollan when we have the choice of buying organic chips from 3,000 miles away or selecting locally grown vs. a strawberry from across the equator. We can vote with our dollars and choose not to support out-of-season produce. There is much to learn on the genetically modified (GMO) front, for knee-jerk “GMO=BAD” thinking is not an action plan. Planning for the world’s food supply is a legitimate concern. And for anyone thinking they have never unknowingly ingested a genetically modified food or food ingredient, is deceiving themselves.
We can choose to continue to live ignorantly, as ignorance is bliss, but for anyone with a conscience, it will be hard to move on without giving some degree of consideration to the choices that are always around us.
I would offer that for any student of this class, to enter a common aisle in a grocery store, to stop in the middle and just look around. The brightly-colored labels all whispering, clamoring, and screaming for your attention and for your money. Do you see choices? Do you see chemicals? Do you see unfair labor practices? Do you envision silos of reconstituted orange juice? I guarantee we have all changed as a result of this class and we will never see something simple as a glass of orange juice, the same. Especially if Coca-Cola has anything to do with it. Take for example this article from the Chicagoist:
Many people choose Simply Orange juice because they believe it is a less processed, more natural choice than other brands. However, a new investigation by Bloomberg BusinessWeek shows that it is a “hyper-engineered and dauntingly industrial product.” Coca-Cola owns Simply Orange, which is made using a process they call Black Book. Since juice production is full of variables, including a peak growing season of only 3 months, this methodology was created to produce consistent orange juice year round. They won’t tell anyone how exactly the Black Book formula works, but the consultant who designed it, Bob Cross of Revenue Analytics, shared it with Bloomberg BusinessWeek.
Black Book is an algorithm that includes data about consumer preferences and the 600 flavors that make up an orange. Coke matches this data to a profile detailing acidity, sweetness, etc. so that they can blend batches to replicate the same taste and consistency. Black Book also incorporates external factors, such as weather patterns, anticipated crop yields, and cost pressures to allow Coke to plan ahead and ensure they have supplies on hand.
Coca-Cola’s Brazilian partner, Cutrale, processes the oranges, which are grown to Coke specifications. Satellite imaging allows them to order growers to pick their fruit at the best time, as determined by Black Book. The fresh-squeezed juice is stored in Cutrale’s silos and transported via a 1.2 mile underground pipeline to Coke’s packaging plant, where it is flash-pasteurized. It is then piped to storage tanks where it is slowly agitated and covered with a nitrogen gas blanked to keep out oxygen, which has been sucked out of the juice, as it will cause it to spoil.
The batches from different crops and seasons are separated, based on orange type, sweetness, and acidity. Blend technicians follow Black Book instructions, adding natural flavors and fragrances captured during squeezing back into the juice to make up for the flavor lost in processing. “When the juice is stripped of oxygen it is also stripped of flavor providing chemicals. Juice companies therefore hire flavor and fragrance companies, the same ones that formulate perfumes for Dior and Calvin Klein, to engineer flavor packs to add back to the juice to make it taste fresh. Flavor packs aren’t listed as an ingredient on the label because technically they are derived from orange essence and oil. Yet those in the industry will tell you that the flavor packs, whether made for reconstituted or pasteurized orange juice, resemble nothing found in nature,” explains Alissa Hamilton, author of Squeezed: What You Don’t Know About Orange Juice.
If you’re looking for an all-natural orange juice experience, free of algorithms and flavor packs, your best bet is to juice it yourself, go to a juice bar, or take Hamilton’s suggestion and enjoy a whole Valencia orange instead.
We cannot continue to blindly put our lives and livelihood in the hands of corporations. The amount of micro-financing and forecasting that goes into something we take for granted, equates to massive profits for these companies. It has been argued that wage-wars and financial class violence is around the corner, and “control” is part of that.
In this class we have learned the value of the commodity of fresh water, and how its supply is limited and is approaching an endangered state. We must question why political figures are buying up land in Paraguay and positioning themselves with their oil-rich backgrounds, to now suddenly take an interest in the world’s water supply.
In the beginning, say pre-industrial times, humans really weren’t affected by their environment. That is, they needed to learn coping skills to work with the land and how to best migrate with changing weather patterns for food production reasons. They let nature drive them. As civilization grew more sophisticated and sought more and more convenience and creature comforts, we altered the environment to suit our needs. We thought we were in control of nature and our environment. The evolutionary step here, is that over time our attitudes have changed about how we think about the environment. This final step is crucial if we are to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Much of what we have learned has been quite doomsday. More a wake-up call. The wizard behind the curtain. It’s a gift to be able to think so much more critically about the things we need, use, eat, and have an effect on a daily basis.
“You can’t change the world, but you can change the facts and when you change the facts, you change points of view, if you change points of view, you may change a vote, and when you change a vote, you may change the world.”
— ML Gore
If there is any consolation in feeling a little small after studying how we’ve lost our way, even doom-and-gloom prophet Guy McPherson has said that just the fact you exist is like winning the lottery within the lottery, the chances and series of events that had to happen, just so you could be here, are phenomenal. (His blog “Nature Bats Last” or the article, here: http://bit.ly/1fQGWzg )
So, there could be a silver lining to all this. Live your life. Enjoy good health. Take pleasure from simple things, be it a cool breeze, a bird’s song, a pet of your dog or cat’s coat. Love your family. And always be appreciative for what you have, and not lament for what you don’t have.