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What is Wrong with Environmentalism?

July 29, 2008 | 38,131 views

environmentalism, environmentalistIn this interview, author and food activist Michael Pollan talks about biofuels and the food crisis, the benefits of grass-fed beef, and how environmentalists should think about sustainability.

Many people don‘t recognize the food they eat as an environmental topic. Only in recent years has there been recognition that sustainable farming offers a very important model of not just how to grow food, but how to engage with the natural world.

Most environmentalists believe that the human relationship with nature is “zero-sum” -- for people to get what we want from the natural world, the natural world must be diminished. But at a well run pastured animal farm where they‘re rotating crops and rotating species, the land is actually improved. Pollan believes that there might be ways that people can get what they need and not diminish nature.

For more of his thoughts, click the link below.

Dr. Mercola's Comments:

Michael Pollan brings up a very interesting point, that focusing on preserving wilderness may need to take a backseat to focusing on sustainability. In other words, when it comes to preserving nature, it shouldn’t be all or nothing.

“We've had in this country what I call a wilderness ethic that's been very good at telling us what to preserve. You know, eight percent of the American landmass we've kind of locked up and thrown away the key. That's a wonderful achievement and has given us things like the wilderness park,” Pollan says.

“This is one of our great contributions to world culture, this idea of wilderness. On the other hand, it's had nothing to say of any value for the ninety-two percent of the landscape that we cannot help but change because this is where we live. This is where we grow our food, this is where we work.

Essentially the tendency of the wilderness ethic is to write that all off. Land is either virgin or raped. It's an all or nothing ethic. It's either in the realm of pristine, preserved wilderness, or it's development -- parking lot, lawn,” he continues.

So you could say that the problem with environmentalism is that it has largely ignored the 92 percent of U.S. land that is not designated as pristine wilderness. Agricultural giants have sprung up, completely pilfering the land and its resources, and we sit back and accept it because, after all, it’s where we get our food.

But as Pollan points out, there is a better way.

Sustainable Farming Does Not Ruin Nature

It may surprise you to learn that farming -- once the symbol of all that’s natural and wholesome -- creates some of the worst pollution in the United States. That’s because most “farming” today is nothing like the small farming of our ancestors. The Farm Sanctuary points out that farm animals produce 130 times more waste than humans. And agricultural runoff is the primary reason why 60 percent of U.S. rivers and streams are polluted.

Meanwhile, in areas where animal agriculture is most concentrated (Iowa, Minnesota, North Carolina, Illinois and Indiana round out the top five states with the most factory-farm pollution) bacteria known as pfiesteria is common in waterways. Not only does pfiesteria kill fish, it also causes nausea, memory loss, fatigue and disorientation in people!

Aside from the pollution, factory farms use vast quantities of resources. According to FactoryFarm.org, industrial milking centers that use manure flush cleaning and automatic cow washing systems, go through as much as 150 gallons of water per cow per day.

Energy costs are even steeper.

A 2002 study from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that industrial farms use an average of three calories of energy to create one calorie of food. Grain-fed beef is at the top of the list of offenders, using 35 calories of energy to produce one calorie of food! And this does not even take into account the energy used to process and transport the foods, so the real toll is even larger.

But there is a way to produce food, to farm, in a way that actually leaves the land better than it was to begin with. And this process is what’s at the heart of the sustainable farming movement going on across the United States and world.

“Farm” Doesn’t Have to be a Four-Letter Word

Environmentalists often loathe farms, as they should given the extensive environmental damage that comes from these industrial giants. But what Michael Pollan often writes about, and what environmentalists hope for, is a transitioning of farming back to the ways of our ancestors.

A movement is already underway, and it’s called permaculture.

The word itself comes from “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture,” and at its foundation is developing agricultural and other systems that are interconnected and dependent on one another. In other words, they mimic the natural ecologies found in nature. The focus is not on any one element of the system, rather the focus is on the relationships between animals, plants, insects, soil, water and habitat -- and how to use these relationships to create synergistic, self-supporting ecosystems.

On a small-scale version, if you compost your food waste and use it to fertilize your own vegetable patch, you are engaging in permaculture. On a wide scale, small farmers are increasingly allowing animals to live in their natural habitats, eating their natural diets, thereby raising healthier foods and dramatically reducing their footprint on the environment.

But there is still a long way to go. As Pollan pointed out, organic food represents less than 2 percent of the food economy, and local food makes up well under 1 percent.

Making Changes One Small Step at a Time

Even though the problems with our food system are vast, you can do your small part to help. If you have the space, a backyard garden is a great starting point. You can also steer clear of foods that come from factory farms, and instead support sustainable agriculture movements in your area.

You can also stay informed and help to spread the word about the problems with the modern food system. Michael Pollan has written extensively on this topic. He wrote the brilliant article about the perils of factory-farmed beef back in 2002, and he also published the book Omnivore's Dilemma in 2006, which is an excellent starting point for anyone interested in the future of food.

[+] Sources and References

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