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The Great Lakes Go Dry: How One-Fifth Of The World’s Fresh Water Is Dwindling Away

The Great Lakes Go Dry: How One-Fifth Of The World’s Fresh Water Is Dwindling Away.

by Joanna M. Foster, originally published by Climate Progress  | TODAY

The frozen opalescent lake and thin, gray sky fade together into white light where the horizon should be. Tall, skeletal grasses shiver on the beach in a wind that makes any sliver of exposed skin burn. The Arni J. Richter, an icebreaking ferry, is about to pull away from Northport Pier for its second and final trip of the day to Washington Island. It’s loaded with food and fuel for the more than 700 hardy residents who call the remote island, just north of Door County peninsula in Wisconsin, home.

People have lived on Washington Island for over 160 years. They’re proud of their tight-knit community and their Icelandic heritage. But life on the island is threatened. For the past 15 years, islanders have watched Lake Michigan slowly disappear. Last January, the lake hit a record low, 29 inches below the long-term average as measured since 1918. The Richter Ferry was just inches away from grounding in some spots along its increasingly treacherous six-mile route to the island.

The Great Lakes, which contain one-fifth of the world’s above-ground fresh water supply, are sometimes referred to as America’s “northern coast.” As communities along the rest of the nation’s shorelines brace for rising waters brought by climate change, however, and spend billions on replacing sand swept out to sea in storms, the communities of the Great Lakes find themselves with more and more sand and less and less water.

“The island depends on the ferry for everything,” said Hoyt Purinton, President and Captain of the Washington Island Ferry Line and great grandson of the ferry’s first captain. “If the ferry can’t get to the island, the island won’t survive. Even if you could find another way to get food and fuel over there, if there’s no easy way for tourists to make the trip, the fragile island economy dies and the community and culture goes with it.”

As the lake retreats, some people blame the Army Corps of Engineers for dredging projects that widen channels leading out of Lake Michigan. Others wonder if the watershed can no longer support the 40 million people in the U.S. and Canada who now rely on the lakes for their drinking water.

Increasingly, scientists believe that climate change is driving the warming waters and setting up a new regime in the Great Lakes that may lead to lower lake levels and a permanently altered shoreline.

Ever since the 1990s, Lake Michigan has been predominantly below its long-term water level average, and trending downwards. Water levels plummeted precipitously in the late 1990s, after a strong El Niño event warmed up the waters.

“That event drastically increased water temperatures,” explained Drew Gronewold, a physical scientist at NOAA’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory(GLERL). “Over the course of just one year, water temperatures went up by 2.5 degrees Celsius. That’s huge. And the cycle is reinforcing; one really warm year led to more than a decade of dropping lake levels.”

Grelickville, Traverse City, MI - Low WaterGrelickville, Traverse City, MI – Low Water

CREDIT: NOAA

As the lake warms, it’s changing the water levels, as well. Most evaporation on the Great Lakes occurs in the fall when the lake is still warm from the summer, but the air has turned cold and dry. When the water is warmer than usual, the peak evaporation season begins earlier and lasts longer into the early winter. Warmer water also leads to less ice formation and fewer days of ice cover.

Ice cover also impacts lake levels. It prevents evaporation from the lakes during the winter and for as long as it lasts into the spring. And it affects how warm the water will be that year, and thus the rate of evaporation — the more ice cover, the colder the water stays into the summer and fall, leading to less evaporation. The reverse is also true — less ice cover will lead to warmer water and more evaporation.

“The 1998 El Niño gave us a taste of what we can expect to see on the Great Lakes in a changing climate,” said Don Scavia, Co-Director of the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments (GLISA). “The El Niño-driven warmer temperatures are a surrogate for what the future climate might be. The lower lake levels during that time may be a signal of what might be happening under longer term climate change.”

In other words, last winter’s record low lake levels are a glimpse of what a warmer climate in the region would do to the lakes — a glimpse that so far has lasted 15 years, set off by one hot summer.

At Newport State Park, one of five state parks in Door County, the vanishing water has changed the shoreline dramatically. The beach, once a wide expanse of silky mustard-colored sand that on a hot summer day would be crawling with a hundred sunscreen-smeared tourists, is now covered in tall reeds, marsh grasses, mud and exposed rocks sheathed in slick green slime. There is no inviting sand, just a marshland down to the water’s edge and the water is clogged with tangled clumps of matted algae like something pulled out of a shower drain.

“I used to constantly get complaints about the appearance of the beach,” said park manager Michelle Hefty. “I’ve been confronted about the grasses encroaching onto the sand and berated about the quantity of insects near the water. It just doesn’t look like that postcard perfect beach anymore.”

Financially, Newport has struggled to keep afloat as tourists seek more manicured picnic spots.

“We’ve had the same budget for the past decade,” said Hefty. “But our costs keep on going up with the increasing price of gas and electricity, while our revenue is shrinking with fewer numbers of visitors.”

Tourism is big business on the Door County peninsula and surrounding islands. According to the Door County Visitors Bureau, tourists pumped $289 million into the local economy in 2012 and supported 2,498 jobs.

State funding only accounts for about 20 percent of the park’s budget; 80 percent of management expenses are supposed to be provided for by park sticker sales and campsite fees.

“We’ve cut back wherever we can,” stressed Hefty. “We don’t plough unless we absolutely have to, we groom the cross-country ski trails less often to save on gas, we turn the thermometer down in the office and pile on the sweaters, but we’re barely breaking even.”

 

 

 

 

According to Jim Sarkis, founder and principal broker at Sarkis & Associates Realtors, waterfront property values in Door County are also taking a hit — declining by 30 to 35 percent over the last five years.

“Of course, it’s impossible to tease out how much of that decline is because of the lower lake levels and how much of that is just a reflection of the recession and the struggles of the U.S. housing market in general,” said Sarkis, who has been a realtor in Door County for 37 years.

There are some clues, however. Ten years ago, a small private dock would add around $150,000 to the value of a waterfront home. Today, the added value is nothing. That’s because across the county docks which once stood in several feet of water, now appear suspended in the air, legs out of water, sometimes reaching out across nothing but sand and tall grasses.

“The value of those docks was the water around them,” said Sarkis. “Now that that’s gone, they’re really not much more than an elevated bench. If you own a boat, you’ll have to rent a slip in a harbor where they’re dredging.”

Sarkis explained that more and more the phrase “water view” is more appropriate than “waterfront.”

“People can still enjoy the sunsets, even if the water isn’t exactly lapping at their back door,” said Sarkis. “But I have definitely taken clients to properties and had people jokingly say ‘I thought you were showing us a waterfront property’ as they walk the two hundred, maybe four hundred feet down to where the water now sits.”

Grelickville, Traverse City , MI - Low WaterGrelickville, Traverse City , MI – Low Water

CREDIT: NOAA

The winter of 2013-2014 is shaping up to be very different from what the Great Lakes have become accustomed to over the last 15 years. Thanks to the polar air drifting down from Canada, Lake Michigan saw some of its earliest ice in years. Scientists are predicting that if the ice lasts, the lake level could go up by as much as a foot this year. And the colder water could be setting up the lakes for a couple years of recovery.

“The good news is that while in some ways there is a lot of inertia in the Great Lakes system, there is also a lot of interannual variation in the water levels,” said GLISA’s Scavia. “The Great Lakes probably have some time to prepare for the lower lake levels we suspect will come in the future. The key is to use the time, not hope that problem has gone away.”

While this winter’s cold will buy some time for the Great Lakes, scientists emphasize that many concerns and unanswered questions remain. One of the great unknowns in the story of water levels on the Great Lakes is how precipitation patterns will change in the years to come. Some models suggest that precipitation is actually expected to increase, which may help to offset declines caused by increased evaporation.

“The general consensus right now, looking at a broad range of models that have been developed for the Great Lakes, is that there is a big range of variability, but there appears to be a decreasing trend in water levels over the next century,” said Gronewold.

One well-studied aspect of changing precipitation patterns in the Great Lakes is the increasing frequency and severity of spring storms. These powerful downpours, which occur around the same time as farms are being prepared for planting, mean that vast amounts of phosphorus are being washed into the lakes, leading to toxic algae blooms and massive dead zones.

“We’ve seen this mostly on Lake Erie so far,” explained Scavia. “But the problem is starting to be seen in Lake Michigan, as well, and we should expect it to get worse.”

Back at Northport Pier where the Washington Island Ferry loads, a massive dredging project is underway to alleviate some of the stress on the boats and communities that depend on their regular arrival. Work began in September to deepen and widen the half mile channel that leads into Detroit Harbor where the ferry docks on the island. The project will cost about $7 million, $5.2 million of which is being provided by Wisconsin’s Harbor Assistance Program. Washington Island is responsible for the rest of the expenses which will be made up for by removing the dredged sediments.

The project will deepen the channel by three feet to bring it to a total of 17 feet below the low water line, widen the channel by 20 feet and remove 134,500 cubic yards of sediment.

Despite the temporary respite this winter, ferry boat captain Purinton remains concerned about the long-term changes he’s observing on the lake. “I hope people don’t look at the last nine months of cold weather and stop planning for low lake levels,” he said. “That would be a huge mistake. This is the first what I like to call ‘real’ winter that we’ve had in years and years. I think what’s happening now is the anomaly, not the years before.”

The Mis-Taking of America

The Mis-Taking of America.

by Erik Lindberg, originally published by Transition Milwaukee  | TODAY

America was not infinite; it only seemed that way to early European explorers, conquerors, and settlers for whom the size of the known world had suddenly doubled and the quantity of effectively unclaimed resources increased by far more than that.  This sudden immeasurable and unearned abundance, it is clear, authorized a new set of cultural practices that would not have been deemed appropriate by a people confronted by visible boundaries and limits.  But I am less concerned with past crimes than I am with the beliefs and expectations that lead us into the future.  The stories we continue to tell ourselves about the discovery of America, its conquest and settling, the Enlightened awakening from an age of unreason are similar to those that helped develop and profoundly shaped a new way of thinking about the world whose main contours are still in place today.  The remaining question is how deep beyond these specific practices and habits of consumption does the false image of the infinite run?  Our way of life is clearly not sustainable; but what if our way of perceiving reality–our fundamental political, economic, even scientific categories—were also inalterably deformed by the false image of an infinite land?  Is philosophical Liberalism compatible with a finite planet and a way of life designed to live on it?  How fundamental are the changes we must make in order to recast the American way of life to fit on a finite, increasingly crowded, planet?

In his one and only full book, Notes on Virginia, Thomas Jefferson provide clear evidence to the first point, that American cultural practices were shaped by this terrible misconception of limitlessness, even if its most destructive and inescapable consequences might come home to roost  only decades, even centuries later.  In a brief aside in Notes on Virginia, Jefferson contrasts European and American farming practices.   Unlike European agriculture, which he admits is more intensive and careful in its approach, the character of American agriculture is formed by the fact that a parcel stripped of its fertility can be abandoned for another: “The indifferent state of that [careful agricultural practices] among us does not proceed from want of knowledge merely; it is from our having such quantities of land to waste as we please.  In Europe the object is to make the most of their land, labour being abundant; here it is to make the most of our labour, land being abundant.”  This is an astonishing admission by Jefferson; and it is indicative of a remarkable culturally-, or perhaps geographically-conditioned lack of foresight, the apparent unimportance of the question: how much land we might really “waste as we please?”  The same lack of foresight appears in most discussions over energy and the environment today, even as we can calculate their finite nature with considerable accuracy.  Ours is a history of a certain kind of success enabled by a particular kind of miscalculation.

Am I making too much of an off-handed remark, a moment of hyperbole buried in an otherwise dry and rather boring recitation of fact and figures about the commonwealth of Virginia?  I don’t think so and for a number of reasons significant to our topic.  Jefferson’s statement about the wasting of land and the constant push westward to find new land was not an obscure sentiment, but was the basic policy and practice of Southern planters.  George Washington’s description of plantation management was similar:

“a piece of land is cut down,” its forests stripped away, so that it can then be “kept under constant cultivation, first in tobacco and then in Indian corn (two very exhausting plants), until it will yield scarcely anything (quoted in Kennedy 17).   At that point, it would be abandoned in favor of new land obtained at the ever-receding frontier.   As historian Robert Kennedy shows in his book, Mr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause: Land, Farmers, Slavery, and the Louisiana Purchase, the life of colonial planters was far more mobile and unsettled than the image of old southern families would suggest: “the evidence of local records in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi indicates that the average planter family moved at least twice in a generation,” while the wealthiest planters engaged in ramped land speculation across the western frontier.  The result, as Kennedy argues, was “a migrant agricultural capitalism with results deadly to humans and to the land itself.”  “As the practice of working soil to death and slaves to exhaustion was repeated over and over again, the desolating army of King Cotton moved on a broad front across the South, drawing people away from home and leaving blighted hopes behind.  By 1847, the first cotton lands planted in Georgia were already exhausted; the number of white farmers in Wilkes County fell by half in twenty years” (21, 14, 21-2).  This practice was made possible by the low price of abundant land.  As Jefferson remarked, “we can buy an acre of new land cheaper than we can manure an old one” (12).

This cycle of careless over-use, destruction, and self-displacement was repeated most rapidly by the wealthiest Southern Planters with huge land holdings and thousands of slaves, all of whom were focused on commodity crops such as tobacco and cotton.  But these wasteful practices, and an accompanying ideology of short-term profit, can be seen throughout the American experience, from the first fur traders to the fracking industry today.  In a chapter entitled “The Economics of Extinction,” in her beautiful Reflections from Bullough’s Pond, Diana Muir tells of the pre-colonial trade in beaver pelts, a trade driven by European fashion, the debt held by many early European settlers, and by the precarious and constant need to hold a surplus against the vicissitudes of life in a foreign land where, as Muir puts it, the Europeans, like us, believed that “one could never pile up too many goods” (11).  Between around 1630 and 1675 all the beavers in New England were turned into coats and hats, hunted into extinction.

The loss of beaver however did not spell only the end of a lucrative trade, but the dying of an entire ecosystem that was responsible for the initial abundance experienced by the first settlers, as well as the entire way of life for the Native Americans.  The beaver pond, after all, provides habitat for hundreds of species as well as an entire microscopic universe.  As Muir describes it, the dead leaves that fall into the stagnant waters of a dammed stream creates algae, which in turn produces “food for the tiny creatures that feed the small fish that feed big fish that feed the majestic osprey. . . . Sedge, moss, arrowhead, pickerelweed, water milfoil—every plant between the ferns far up the bank and the duckweed floating on open water is home to some animal or its young, a necessary food for some growing thing” (6).  But the loss of the beaver, nature’s greatest architect and landscaper, has an even greater geographical and hydrological impact upon the land, and in a way that directly affects an agricultural people.  A beaver dam is a wonder of water management, moderating “the seasonal extremes of rainfall, trapping the rains of April to release them in slow, even seepage through the hot, dry days of summer and early fall” (6).

When settlers first arrived, Muir notes, New England was home to tens of thousands of beaver ponds.  As important as the slow release of water, moreover, was the way millions of gallons were held behind the dams, creating a constant seepage into the ground. The result: a “reservoir of ground water so abundant that it burst in ever-flowing springs [even] on the beach,” a ground water source necessary to all “the abundance of every kind [that] impressed the first Europeans to reach these shores, abundance of strawberries in the fields and of deer in the woods, abundance of trees, and an astonishing abundance of fresh, clear water” (7). The beaver gone, the forests felled, the ground turned into fast-eroding fields, this became the hardscrabble New England that we know today.  But it scarcely mattered to the European settlers; rivers could be turned into industrial mills and new land could be acquired further west, with little cost to this new economics of extinction that had great and varied abundance to churn through.  Recalling Huber and Mills, the logic of the wealth retrieving machines of these new white Americans advanced much faster than the abundance retreated—over the decades, they closed in on the receding horizon.

If this economics of extinction was made possible by the cheap supply of land and the cheapness with which the lives of its inhabitants were treated, how was it justified?  Most individual participants in any  destructive form of commerce keep their noses down and, for the most part, are just trying to make a living or compete with their neighbors, or live up to some status-filled ideal; for them, no justification beyond immediate gain is required.  But a “big picture thinker” with epic ambitions like Jefferson, one who was designing a new way of life, would require something more.  This is where the notion of the infinite or the limitless scale of the Americas comes in, a notion that appears repeatedly throughout Jefferson’s work and, more significantly, informs the sort of expansionary policy that Jefferson inaugurated and that has become one of the few political solutions that has proved successful decade after decade ever since Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory: when in doubt, expand and grow, a policy that has evolved from Westward expansion and Indian removal, to foreign conquest and economic imperialism.  All of these expansionary solutions have been similarly cloaked with self-congratulatory stories of manifest destiny, American exceptionalism, an American Empire of Liberty or Beacon of Hope, a seven-billion member global middle class powered by Windows, and, most improbably, the myth that there are no limits to growth.  This has also provides the model for categorical disregard of ecological limits that much of the world has adopted.

It is true that Jefferson is often presented as the patron saint of American homestead agriculture, the spokesman for the virtuous and modest aspiration that American citizens might bind themselves to a piece of land which they would nurture and husband, while engaging in informed participation in the difficult task of self-government.  Jefferson clearly favored this agricultural model over the more commercially and financially-minded manufacture or trade promoted by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, with whom Jefferson battled over the identity America might assume.   In a famous letter to John Jay, Jefferson writes: “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens.  They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interest by the most lasting bonds.”  In order for the audacious American experiment in self-rule to work, the nation would need to be bound together by people also bound to the earth, or so Jefferson professed.  While the image was modest, the ambition was immense and the arc of simple virtue reached towards the infinite: an Empire of Liberty.

This tension between a modest virtue and a grand ambition is illustrated in the same letter to Jay: the stay at home virtues of the yeoman farmer, tied to the land and a local community is also  a sort of tool or device to be used in a far more ambitious dream in which “most valuable citizens,” whose way of living Jefferson would never have accepted for himself, appear as pawns in a policy of expansion and growth that did not develop any strategies, in the end, to limit itself. “We have now lands enough to employ an infinite number of people in their cultivation.  As long therefore as they can find employment in this line, I would not convert them into mariners, artisans or anything else. But our citizens will find employment in this line till their numbers, & of course their productions, become too great for the demand both internal & foreign. This is not the case as yet, & probably will not be for a considerable time.”

Our first clue to this broader motive comes in the very question that Jefferson is addressing: the paternalistic one that asks, how should we put our new citizens to work?  What occupation might best serve the political needs of the nation?   But beyond the social engineering, as people on the right would refer to this today, the answer exemplifies a common Jeffersonian assumption buried in his similar response to other political questions, many of which employed for political advantage the seemingly unlimited space of the American continent.  That we could waste as much land as we please makes the virtues of being tied to the land and the liberty of the nation optional and, like everything else, disposable.   “We have now lands enough to employ an infinite number of people in their cultivation.”  Was there really room for an infinite number of farmers?   Is Jefferson serious?  While he may have admitted that it wasn’t really infinite, only infinite for all practical purposes, here and elsewhere he nevertheless proceeds as if it were truly infinite or that any distant limits need not be a concern of his.  The only foreseeable limits that Jefferson can even imagine are established not by land constraints, but by limits to the demand of agricultural products.

It is also interesting to consider these words in light of the post-Keynesian economic theory of Krugman and Reich, in which economic problems are generally presumed to be ones of demand rather than supply, and in the light of our multi-billion dollar advertising and marketing industry, whose main function is to address problems of demand by goading us into wanting and needing more.  If there is a limit to how many farmers Jefferson thought the United States might support, it is not land.  It is instead demand for their products, food, but also fiber and tobacco.  This belief in infinite land pops up repeatedly in Jefferson’s writings and speeches.  We have seen the way Jefferson has made some sort of truce with the wasteful techniques of agriculture in Notes on Virginia, assenting to the sacrifice of soil and “lasting bonds,” alike, to some principle of productivity or profit, and a corresponding inability to anticipate how long it might take to waste all our land.  The same sort of indifference to the quickening power of exponential growth appears in his first Inaugural Address, where Jefferson predicts that this “chosen country” would have “room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.”  This, we might note, is more than ten times the generations there had been since the birth of Christ.   We should also note that in the same address Jefferson spoke favorably on the exponential population expansion that the young nation was experiencing: “you will perceive that the increase in numbers during the last 10 years, proceeding in geometric ratio, promises a duplication in little more than 22 years.”  This growth is viewed with nothing but optimistic pride: “we contemplate this rapid growth and the prospect it holds up to us, not with a view to the injuries it may enable us to do others in some future day, but to the settlement of the extensive country still remaining vacant within our limits to the multiplication of men susceptible of happiness, educated in the love of order, habituated to self-government, and valuing its blessings above all price.”

Jefferson’s comments on agriculture can be slightly, and perhaps purposefully, confusing.  The wealthy planters who received the benefit of most of Jefferson’s policies do not share the ethic of the family farm.  Likewise, it is disingenuous to suggest that labor was not plentiful in the new world, where millions of slaves toiled and were necessary to this economics of extinction.  In the above mentionedMr. Jefferson’s Lost Cause, Robert Kennedy argues that in addition to the better-known divide between Jefferson’s agrarianism and Hamilton’s commerce and industry, agriculture had two distinct strains of its own.  One of these, represented by the Yeoman farmer of the sort written about to John Jay, was the kind of farming Jefferson favored, at least in principle and within his soaring approbations.  In contrast, was the slave-based, commodity-centered, Southern plantation, a clear precursor to today’s industrial agriculture.  While Jefferson despised the slavery upon which the plantation system was built, and was eventually to mourn the devastation to the land that it wrought, he nevertheless suited his policies around the needs of the wealthy planter and at the expense of the yeoman farmer.  The Louisiana Purchase and the spread of slavery westward was the most significant example of this, but the same sacrifice of his ideal pervaded a much broader series of decisions, all of which are well-documented by Kennedy.  An Empire of Liberty founded on the virtues of the cultivators of the earth was the “lost cause” referred to in Kennedy’s title.

The yeoman farmer was less dependent on the money economy and foreign markets.  Small family farms were far more self-sufficient and, because they were less capital-intensive, were not as ready or as able to uproot themselves even for the cheap land at the frontier.  In Jefferson’s day it was already apparent that the small and diversified farmer, often laboring without slaves, provided what we would today call as more “sustainable” model.  They would manure an acre of land rather than abandon it for another.  This model of agriculture and its attendant virtues is significant to our broader understanding of Liberalism and America, and our attempt to find a path towards a sustainable future.  As Kennedy would tell it, American history is a struggle between these two competing strains of freedom and democracy, a struggle that tore at Jefferson himself.  Kennedy argues that the struggle between the free, independent, and ecologically minded family farm, on the one hand, and the more exploitative and destructive plantation, on the other, often hung in a close balance. It could have gone either way.  He is particularly critical of Jefferson, who for a variety of personal and political reasons, never had quite the courage necessary to defend his ideals.  In this way, Kennedy believes Jefferson could have possibly prevented the growth of slavery, the underdevelopment of the South, and even the civil war.

Kennedy’s thesis also suggests that Liberalism contains within it a sustainable strain based on lower levels of consumption and waste, and an economy tied more closely to an ecology.   This view would in some sense cast doubt on my thesis that Liberalism is inherently expansionary and inherently anti-ecological.  My primary response is: good!  All the better if Liberalism and Enlightenment reason have the seeds of a sustainable rebirth buried within them.  My goal is not to overthrow the principles of the Liberal Enlightenment just for the fun of it, but to articulate ways in which our Liberal Expectations, as they have evolved, might be reformed to fit into a finite planet.  The future prospects of my two year old twin sons become all the more better if, indeed, we can retrace our steps and take some other fork in the road.  They will care not a bit whether they inherit an inhabitable planet with an intact society that is Liberal, Post-Liberal, or something with an altogether different label.  I am more than happy to welcome those parts of our tradition and our reigning political ideology that accept limits to consumption, that don’t value growth for growth’s sake, or believe that every problem will be solved with more technology and a step further from the soil and the land.

In any event, a number of questions still remain even if we except Kennedy’s thesis:  why, most significantly, has our tradition of the yeoman farmer given way time and time again to the powers of expansion and growth?  What forces or internal logic has transformed our family farmers into an industrial agricultural complex, our tradesmen and artisans into assembly line workers, our store-owners into cogs in a big-box machine, our local bankers and accountants into Wall Street masters of the universe, the good earthy folk of the North East and the Mid-West into iPad-punching account executives, marketers, and global salespeople?  We have, I will argue, designed all our life supporting systems—our food, our trade, our manufacturing, our waste disposal, even our political elections—as if the world were limitless, our resources and dumps infinite.  Was there ever really anything else?  Did ecology ever stand a chance in the face of so profitable an economy of extinction?

It is of course satisfying to think it did, especially if we can find a villain to blame.  Kennedy’s description follows the pattern we saw in our discussion of partisan warfare: the forces of destruction are thus isolated into a particular group.  In this case, the Southern, slave-owning plantation owners provide a welcome target for educated, progressive, northern middle-class people.  They, we can happily say, were the problem.  Those values, not ours, are unsustainable.  But one need not look very far to see that Jefferson’s yeoman farmer may have just been a somewhat slower version of the Southern Planter. While Kennedy emphasizes several times that the Yeoman model was successfully instituted in the North East, and areas north of the Ohio River, the marks they may have left on the terrain have long since been plowed under.  A state like Wisconsin or Illinois was, at one time, the seat of diverse agriculture and then for a time the center of grain production.  But wheat will deplete the soil quickly and thus the wheat belt was forced west, leaving Wisconsin to Dairy pastures.  The only thing that has allowed states like Iowa or Kansas to remain in grain production was the introduction of chemical fertilizers, which have temporarily obscured the complete destruction of its soils.

Perhaps, to answer the questions posed above, like absolute power, unlimited space corrupts.  Or perhaps the scales of judgment and reason cannot be balanced except against a background of limits and finitude.  The illusion infinite space, like infinite energy or resources, at the very least lets one off a number of ethical hooks and solves all sorts of practical problems: without limits “and” replaces “either/or” and governing becomes the far easier project of adding benefit to benefit.  Expansion helps fill the coffers; free land, like today’s tax cuts or stimulus checks, stills unrest.  A bigger pie means less struggle over the relative size of one’s piece.  One must believe that there is infinite land or develop some economic fantasy about a permanently growing dematerialized knowledge economy in order for this sort of “solution” not to look like you are just kicking the can down the road.  Which is more or less what Jefferson did with regards to slavery, where we can see a similar sort of tension between short-term gain and the deeper principles necessary to a democratic nation.  The immediate economic gain of a slave economy provided exports of sugar, cotton, and tobacco that a young cash-starved and highly indebted nation needed.  For even as Jefferson believed that slavery would destroy the national soul, the lure of fantastic gain from wasted land and lives was too much for his virtue or his reason or some other part of him that was not as strong as we retrospectively might have liked.   But as long as there were no visible limits, the day of reckoning could be postponed.  This “problem” would have to be solved, but only later.   We may scorn Jefferson’s views on slavery and remain unforgiving towards his obvious historical cultural and racial bias.  But do we not tell a similar sort of story about our tremendous waste and destruction of the planet?  Yes, someone needs to do something.  But not yet, not until we fix the economy or make sure everyone has good internet access, or a job free from manual labor.  Part of the work of reworking our political and economic beliefs and expectations involves the tricky task of separating various threads from our history.

In his magnificent portrait of the United States, The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry observes that “one of the peculiarities of the white race’s presence in America is how little intention has been applied to it.”  America was of course discovered, and its inhabitants misnamed,  in the course of a ill-navigated search for a short route to India; despite this fundamental and originary disorientation–or perhaps because of it–the continent was, Berry points out, thereafter “laid open in an orgy of goldseeking” whose object of desire was “always somewhere further on.”  This combination of  misplaced intentions and spatial bewilderment marked the beginning of a restless settling and unsettling characteristic of our culture, to treaties brokered only long enough to be betrayed, to trails of broken bodies and broken spirits and the demeaning of life and work upon which the unstoppable push westward was beaten and eventually paved.  From the first days plunder to the present, Berry argues, we the inhabitants of the Americas have continued to “displace ourselves. . . with the same mixture of fantasy and avarice” (3) that Columbus and Cortez first combined with such explosive results.   Jefferson is of special interest to this story precisely because he is not entirely given over to this fantasy and avarice, but is concerned about the virtues necessary for peaceful democratic self-rule.  Jefferson was no conquistador.  Peace and independence ranked far higher in his scheme than sudden riches.  And yet he cannot resist what Berry refers to as this tendency to displace ourselves and what I would refer to as the mist-taking of America, both of which cannot be fully dissociated from the disorientating experience of an incomprehensibly large space at the edge of which Christopher Columbus ran aground.

Contrary to popular legend, Columbus did not believe the Earth was flat.  That myth was brokered by Washington Irving in an attempt to make pre-modern Europeans appear irremediably stupid and ourselves, in contrast, impeachably advanced.  But Columbus did believe the Earth to be significantly smaller than it is and, because of a simple, almost comic, transcription error, insisted that the 19,000 mile westward trip from Europe to Asia was more like 2,000.  Had he not run aground when he did, on an unmapped land, Columbus and his men would have soon starved to death as they drifted off into obscurity.  Until his death, nevertheless, Columbus maintained that with his landing in the “East Indies” he had indeed found passage to the edge of Asia.  But given the overriding purposes of the day, it scarcely mattered which hemisphere Columbus had stumbled upon, and his staggering geographical disorientation did nothing to diminish his jubilation, nor inhibit the ensuing orgy of plunder or the grandeur of the fantasy and avarice with which he carried it out.  His initial impression of the first Native Americans he encountered was how their open friendliness and thus how easy they would be to slay or enslave, both of which he promptly set out to prove.  In his first report to his sponsors in the Spanish Court, Columbus likewise promised them “as much gold as they need. . . and as many slaves as they ask.”  The mortality rate in the Islands Columbus visited approached 90% in many cases.  Although we don’t like to think about it too much, we, middle-class Americans, are the beneficiaries of this mistaking of America, and it is only by turning away from the details of his three eventual rampages through the Caribbean and the coast of Central America that Columbus remains a celebrated hero in the United States.

In this way did Columbus begin a process which I would call the mis-taking of America: where cognitive, accounting, or navigational errors actually leads to a great and successful plundering, where “Indians” are either removed or made invisible according to a philosophy based on a distinction between civilization and savagery; where civilization attempts to wash itself clean  in a state of nature, which it then proceeds to clear, mine, and develop into oblivion; where the political and spiritual renewal that an empty frontier promises is used to justify the emptying of that frontier of its native inhabitants so that it might be reworked according to European ideals of property, cultivation, and advancement, often by slaves kidnapped from Africa—with the whole charade of avarice held together with high-sounding philosophical and scientific fantasy.  Thus do cognitive and error and moral blindness feed off of each other and thus do they create a disorientation and moral unmooring–one which can be seen most vividly today in our relationship to energy and the environment.

I am not of course the first to depict the particular moral and political development of the United States in terms of the vast space of the Americas.  This honor likely goes to historian Frederick Jackson Turner and his late nineteenth century “Frontier Thesis,” according to which our national development was best explained by our history of westward expansion.  Turner’s overriding purpose was to explain the uniqueness of the “American character,” especially in comparison to the European one, which was at the time mired in conflict.  My question, of course, is quite different in that it asks “how is it that we, the most enlightened and technologically advanced people, are unable to see where our current trajectory will take us?”  But the role of a vast and bountiful space takes center-stage in both approaches.  While for most nations, according to Turner, “development has occurred in a limited area,” America has developed through its continued expansion into an open frontier: “Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West.  The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explains American development” (The Frontier in American History 1).  More specifically, as the frontier line advanced, Jackson proposes, settlers were continually confronted with primitive, even savage conditions, and the newly cast civilization was repeatedly forced its forge itself anew out of the wilderness: “this perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character” (2).

Turner, of course, remains oblivious to the peoples and the cultures who did in fact inhabit a frontier that was neither free nor open.  His is a history most clearly written from the standpoint of the conqueror.  Armed with Enlightenment principles such as the “state of nature” in which human civilization would be laid bare and cleansed of its sediment so that it might enjoy perennial rebirth, Turner provides one more example of the mis-taking of America.  The American character, according to Turner, is marked by:

a coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom–these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier. Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity, and the people of the United States have taken their tone from the incessant expansion which has not only been open but has even been forced upon them.

Not adequately characterized, here, is a blinding arrogance that is shared by Turner, an inability to understand who, at this meeting point between “savagery and civilization,” the real savages were.  The terrible “expedients” that these restless heroes were so quick to find need to be named, the “great ends” need to be defined.  For these were a people who had tools and weapons of great power, and beguiling trinkets; they carried devastating disease, were unmoored by exuberance and opportunism, and were animated by new beliefs that released them from any sense of bounded limits.  They were smart, no doubt, and quick.  But they were not wise.  They knew how to conquer and exploit, but it is unclear they ever learned how to settle.

In discussing the “unsettling of America,” Wendell Berry suggests that “the first principle of the exploitative mind is to divide and conquer.  And surely there has never been a people more ominously and painfully divided that we are—both against each other and within ourselves (11).  The roots of this  divide—which, in contrast to Turner, Berry believes to be the most significant product of our restless advance against a settled frontier–of course lie in our history: in a history where we have been competing with each other and the earth at the expense of both.  In contrast to the illusion of infinity provided by the immense stretch of land embedded in our modern picture of the world, Berry looks to the divine as a source of wholeness that might heal these divisions.  But “we can make ourselves whole only by accepting our partiality, by living within our limits, by being human—not by trying to be gods” (95).

To this I would only add that the lure of infinite reason becomes insensible to that reason’s limits.  As Alasdair MacIntyre reminds us, “reason is calculative; it can assess truths of fact and mathematical relations but nothing more.  In the realm of practice therefore it can speak only of means.  About ends it must be silent” (After Virtue 54).  But our reason and logic has been ruthlessly self-assertive.  In the age of infinite reason, and upon the land where it was unleashed, our ends, unguided by anything else, are given to the aggressive impulses of expansion—bigger, faster, more, and yet more still.  Liberalism, at least as it has evolved so far, might be described of as a system where the ends—the values and goals that guide our practices—are a reflection only of the calculating and opportunistic means we have mistaken with truth itself: expansion, because we have cleared the space for it; wealth, because it makes everyone wealthy; growth, because it permits future growth; competition, because it keeps us competitive; freedom, because it prevents any hindrance to our aims, whatever they might be.

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Cold U.S. Temperatures Expected To Break Records As ‘Polar Vortex’ Blasts Midwest

Cold U.S. Temperatures Expected To Break Records As ‘Polar Vortex’ Blasts Midwest.

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The weather warnings are dire: Life threatening wind chills. Historic cold outbreak. Bitter cold temperatures.

Winter is normally cold, but starting Sunday tundra-like temperatures are poised to deliver a rare and potentially dangerous sledgehammer blow to much of the Midwest, driving temperatures so far below zero that records will shatter.

One reason? A “polar vortex,” as one meteorologist calls it, which will send cold air piled up at the North Pole down to the U.S., funneling it as far south as the Gulf Coast.

The temperature predictions are startling: 25 below zero in Fargo, N.D., minus 31 in International Falls, Minn., and 15 below in Indianapolis and Chicago. At those temperatures, exposed skin can get frostbitten in minutes and hypothermia can quickly set in because wind chills could hit 50, 60 or even 70 below zero.

Temperature records will likely be broken during the short, yet forceful deep freeze that will begin in many places on Sunday and extend into early next week. That’s thanks to a perfect combination of the jet stream, cold surface temperatures and the polar vortex — a counterclockwise-rotating pool of cold, dense air, said Ryan Maue, of Tallahassee, Fla., a meteorologist for Weather Bell.

“All the ingredients are there for a near-record or historic cold outbreak,” he said. “If you’re under 40 (years old), you’ve not seen this stuff before.”

Snow already on the ground and fresh powder expected in some places ahead of the cold air will reduce the sun’s heating effect, so nighttime lows will plummet thanks to strong northwest winds that will deliver the Arctic blast, Maue said. And there’s no warming effect from the Gulf to counteract the cold air, he said.

The cold blast will sweep through parts of New England, where residents will have just dug out from a snowstorm and the frigid temperatures that followed. Parts of the central Midwest could also see up to a foot of snow just as the cold sweeps in pulling temperatures to 10 below zero in the St. Louis area.

Even places accustomed to normally mild to warmer winters will see a plunge in temperatures early next week, including Atlanta where the high is expected to hover in the mid-20s on Tuesday.

“This one happens to be really big and it’s going to dive deep into the continental U.S. And all that cold air is going to come with it,” said Sally Johnson, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls.

It’s relatively uncommon to have such frigid air blanket so much of the U.S., maybe once a decade or every couple of decades, Maue said. But in the long-run the deep temperature dives are less meaningful for comparison to other storms than daytime highs that are below-zero and long cold spells, he said.

And so far, this winter is proving to be a cold one.

“Right now for the winter we will have had two significant shots of major Arctic air and we’re only through the first week of January. And we had a pretty cold December,” Maue said.

Cities and states are already taking precautions. Minnesota called off school for Monday statewide, the first such closing in 17 years, because of projected highs in the minus teens and lows as cold as 30 below. Milwaukee and Madison, Wis., students also won’t be in class Monday. North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple urged superintendents to keep children’s safety in making the decision after the state forecast called for “life threatening wind chills” through Tuesday morning.

Sunday’s playoff game in Green Bay could be among one of the coldest NFL games ever played. Temperatures at Lambeau Field are expected to be a frigid minus 2 degrees when the Packers and San Francisco 49ers kick off, and by the fourth quarter it’ll be a bone-chilling minus 7, with wind chills approaching minus 30, according to the National Weather Service. Officials are warning fans to take extra safety measures to stay warm including dressing in layers and sipping warm drinks.

And though this cold spell will last just a few days as warmer air comes behind, it likely will freeze over the Great Lakes and other bodies of water, meaning frigid temperatures will likely last the rest of winter, Maue said.

“It raises the chances for future cold,” he said, adding it could include next month’s Super Bowl in New York.

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