Why Garden in School (Part 2)

Can School Gardening Help Save Civilization?

(An Essay in Four Parts)

 

Catlin1

by Carter D. Latendresse
The Catlin Gabel School
Portland, Oregon

Abstract
This paper is an argument for gardening in schools, focusing on two months of integrated English-history sixth grade curriculum that explores the relationships between a number of current environmental problems—notably hunger, water scarcity, topsoil loss, and global warming—and the land-use practices that led to the downfall of ancient Mesopotamia. This paper suggests that world leaders today are repeating some of the same mistakes that caused desertification to topple the Sumerian empire. It then explains how our sixth grade class explores solutions to the existing emergencies by studying Mesopotamia, ancient myth, gardening, and contemporary dystopian fiction. Finally, this paper posits a new cosmology that might help to remake western civilization, saving it from the threat of present-day ecological crises.

Part I: Four Enduring Understandings

Part II: Nine Reasons for a Garden

When we present the following nine reasons for our study of Mesopotamia in the garden, we do so in the problem-solution format so that our eleven and twelve year-olds do not feel overwhelmed by the quandaries of history, society, and science, and so that they might exercise their innovation and collaboration during their civilization-creation group work, thereby feeling efficacious while creating solutions for what ails us today. I will therefore present the nine reasons here in that same problem-solution fashion.

 

The Water reason

Problem: In his landmark book When the Rivers Run Dry, Fred Pearce (2006) tells the story of the Sumerians in the Fertile Crescent 7500 years ago, how they build the first giant irrigation systems using river water from the Tigris and Euphrates. They dug large canals and erected gigantic levees to protect themselves from the spring floods. However, the world’s first writing, cuneiform, done on clay tablets, notes that 3800 years ago their once great farm system was failing, the southern Mesopotamian “black fields becoming white” and “plants choked with salt” (Pearce, 2006, p. 186). The empire had to switch from wheat to barley, which is more tolerant of salt than its predecessor. The barley eventually failed as well, as “the salt chased civilization through Mesopotamia as mercilessly as any barbarian horde” (Pearce, 2006, p. 187). Pearce goes on to compare Mesopotamia to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, noting that great ancient civilizations emerged in environments where controlling the water was the highest priority. These ancient worlds, sometimes referred to as hydraulic civilizations in class, are unlike the more modest and oldest continually settled city of Jericho in Palestine, which has sustained farming on a smaller scale for 9000 years due to a spring producing 20 gallons a second (Pearce, 2006, p. 185). The grander cities of Mesopotamia were vulnerable to desertification, climate change, and silt built up in their waterways. Jericho, on the other hand, supplies a sustainable, if less impressive because less massive example for future generations.

What do the water problems of Mesopotamia, the students want to know, have to do with us today in Portland, Oregon, where it seems to rain for eight straight months every year? According to Maude Barlow, co-founder of Blue Planet Project, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has published the alarming statistic that forty U.S. states are currently threatened by water scarcity. Not only are we vulnerable nationally to water shortage, but worldwide, lack of clean water is the leading cause of childhood death (Barlow). When pondering these threats, one begins to see that the misuse of water has continued unabated from the ancient world to present day. Take, for example, the wastefulness of the typical meat-based diet. “To produce just one pound of beef takes thousands of gallons of water. . . and this is [in] a world in which two-thirds of all people are expected to face water shortage in less than a generation” (Lappé & Lappé, 2002, p. 15).

Solution: The Sierra Club (2012) has a website on water conservation that we share with our students, asking them to think about using some of the strategies presented there in their own homes. Strategies include installing a low-flow showerhead, replacing the lawn with drought resistant plants, using drip irrigation in gardens rather than sprinklers, and watering with saved gray water. (Top Tips section, para. 13, 20, 22, and 26; and Other Considerations section, para. 2).

Here on campus, we have installed drip irrigation in our raised beds in order to reduce water evaporation. We have also installed an instructional rain barrel off of our cob oven roof in the garden that waters a tulip and lily bed so that students can see a water reclamation project in action.

 

The Dirt reason

Problem: In his article “Our Good Earth,” Mann notes that “today more than six billion people rely on food grown on just 11 percent of the global land surface,” while just “a scant 3 percent of the Earth’s surface [is] inherently fertile soil” (2008, p. 92). Clearly, in order for the world to feed itself, it has to conserve the living, fecund, very thin skin of this planet.

In the first and still most thorough study of global soil misuse, scientists in the Netherlands at the International Soil Reference and Information Centre (ISRIC) estimated in 1991 that humans have degraded, in ways described in Part I of this essay, 7.5 million square miles of land, an area that equals the U.S. and Canada combined (Mann, 2008, p. 90). Food riots have broken out every year over the globe for the past decade, due mainly to this degradation of the world’s soil.

Not all hope is lost, however. Rattan Lal, a soil scientist at Ohio State University, says that amending the world’s damaged soils with vast amounts of carbon can address several issues simultaneously. “Political stability, environmental quality, hunger, and poverty all have the same root. In the long run, the solution to each is restoring the most basic of all resources, the soil” (Mann, 2008, p. 90). Save the soil, put the people back to work, and allow them to feed their families—these are the recommendations of the ISRIC.

Solution: To preserve soil, water, and to reduce global warming, Bill Benenson’s (2009) movie Dirt, in a more prescriptive way than the ISRIC,recommends the following: Farm a variety of crops organically rather than monocropping with herbicides and pesticides, which is typically done in conventional agriculture. Further, we should fertilize with cow dung and compost rather than with nitrogen-heavy chemical fertilizers. The film also recommends collecting and trading seeds, planting trees, employing people to green urban spaces, joining a CSA for vegetables, and shopping for local seasonal produce at farmer’s markets when possible.

Here on campus, we show our students the film, and we harvest organic vegetables from our garden for our lunch salad bar, later composting back into our garden. The circularity of this system allows us to preserve the health of our soil and to teach invaluable lessons on soil conservation.

 

The Bee reason

Problem: During an interview on You Tube with the director Jon Betz and producer Taggart Siegel (2010) of the movie Queen of the Sun, Jonathan Kim (2011), the interviewer, points out that Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) sweeping the bee world over the last five years has profound consequences for humans, as 70% of human food comes from pollination by honey bees, including broccoli, apples, soybeans, citrus, and grapes (Kim, 2011). Queen of the Sun suggests several factors for the cause of CCD, from viruses to funguses to pesticides to mites to monocropping to giving the bees antibiotics. Scientists do not have a consensus; however, early data suggests that trucking bees to pollinate monocultures, such as almond orchards in California and apple orchards in Oregon, weakens bee hives because orchards lacking biodiversity draw an inordinate level of pests, which prompts the orchardists to spray immense amounts of pesticides, which the bees ingest, and which weakens to bees’ immune systems. Michael Pollan states in the film that this industrialized farm system eventually degrades into monocrop deserts, contributing to CCD.

Solution: We need to keep bees on biodiverse gardens, farms, orchards, and campuses across the country, to normalize the presence of honeybees and to help children to distinguish between the honey bee and the much more aggressive wasp or yellow jacket, which are drawn to our picnics and our lunch meats.

The sixth grade team has been working with a Portland-based beekeeper to keep two hives in the Catlin Gabel School apple orchard to pollinate the trees on campus and to raise honey for our cafeteria. Learning about bees by interacting with them on a biodiverse campus is an important way for students to mitigate CCD and to ensure the continuance of pollination by honeybees.

 

The Population reason

Problem: There were 36 million people in Europe in 1000; 45 million in 1100; 60 million in 1200; and 80 million in 1300. In three hundred years, the population of Europe more than doubled, which required more land to be cleared for food production. This was made possible by a relatively warm climate across Europe from 800 to 1200. Forests originally covered 95% of western and central Europe, but the need to feed the burgeoning population reduced the forests to about 20% (Ponting, 1991, p. 121).

World population first reached one billion in about 1825, and it had taken 2,000,000 years to do so. That population reached two billion by about 1925. The third billion only took 35 years, in 1960. The fourth was added by 1975. The jump from 4 to 5 billion only took another 12 years (Ponting, 1991, p. 240). If one looks at a graph of world population from 1700-2000, one is immediately struck by the fact that it resembles, in an eerie but understandable way, the dramatic spike in Earth’s surface temperature during that same historical period. The fact of modern global warming was first brought to the world’s attention by Houghton et al. (2001) with the publication of their Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Third Report entitled Climate Change 2001—Scientific Basis. Most people remember Michael Mann’s “hockey stick” graph of 20th century climate change from Al Gore’s (2006) documentary film An Inconvenient Truth (Bender, Burns, and David), showing how the 1990s were the warmest decade on Earth in one thousand years. Mann’s graph was peer reviewed by the IPCC and used as a basis for Figure 1, “Variations of the Earth’s Surface Temperature over the Last 140 Years and the last millennium” in the 2001 report (Houghton et al., 2001, Summary for Policy Makers section).

What, one might wonder, does population have to do with global warming? The common denominator here is oil, which was first drilled in the U.S. in 1859 in Pennsylvania. Oil helped the human species to triple in one century from two to six billion. Over a billion acres of land across the globe was brought into food production between 1920 and 1980 (Ponting, 1991, p. 244). Once the land was planted and harvested, the international food trade blossomed with two oil-backed innovations: the first being ocean and railway transport, the second being refrigeration. “The nineteenth century marked the end of several thousand years of largely self-sufficient agriculture . . . and the transition to an era where much of the food consumed in the industrialised (sic) countries was imported” (Ponting, 1991, p. 245). At the same time, greater mechanization of tilling, harvesting, storage, and transport led to a sharp decline in the number of farms. In the U.S. alone, farm numbers fell from 7 million in 1930 to 3 million in 1980, while over half of the produce was produce grown and distributed by just 5% of the total number of farms (Ponting, 1991, p. 246). The lesson here is that with the sharp increase in world population came a correspondingly steep rise in the fossil fuels used to feed that population as well as an absurdly precipitous decrease in the number of people farming sustainably in a biodiverse way for subsistence. Every year we add approximately 70 million more people to Earth, which requires, given our industrial food economy, greater inputs from machines, fertilizers, and pesticides—all oil-based, all contributing to land, air, and water degradation and global warming (Elbel & Stallings, 2009).

Solution: The challenge remains to feed a ballooning world population without polluting the world that needs to feed that population. There isn’t one answer here. Intersecting solutions, as proposed by the National Geographic Society’s (2012) Eye in the Sky project, include the following: One, preserve the soil by rotating crops and farming organically with a variety of crops on each farm, which can reduce the need to clear more woodland for agriculture. Two, contour plow, which reduces water-polluting runoff. Three, governments should limit or ban the use of DDT as an insecticide because of its spread through food chains. Four, affluent nations should eat less meat so that the grain and water that are given to cows can be redirected to humans who are hungry and thirsty.

Here at school, in addition to sustainability, another one of our mission objectives is global education. To that end, the fifth grade teachers teach the book What the World Eats, by Faith D’Aluisio and Peter Menzel (2008). Their photo-documentary allows students to compare and contrast the food that twenty-five families in twenty-one countries purchase and eat in one week. The text and teachers highlight the connections between family income, family size, geography, food availability, and diversity in diet. As a result of this study, students begin to internalize the connections between their families and the families of a billion others across the globe.

 

The Climate change reason

Problem: The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been telling us for twenty years that climate change is real, that the planet is getting hotter, that this warming causes extreme weather events, and that global warming, especially in the last hundred years, is human-induced (Henson, 2006, p. 273). Though there had been some spurious anti-scientific debate over global warming ten years ago, in their 2007 IPCC report, editors Pachauri and Reisinger confirmed, through further research, that this century’s precipitous spike in global warming is due to human greenhouse gas emissions (Summary for Policymakers Section; Subsection 2: Causes of Change).

Last winter, PBS News Hour (2011) released a slideshow online entitled “Weather’s Dozen,” which presented photographs of twelve extreme weather events in the U.S. during 2011, including tornadoes, heat waves, droughts, and floods. Each of the disasters exceeded a cost of one billion dollars in damages. The slideshow also presented a bar graph comparing financial costs of these disasters from each year over the last three decades. One sees that on this last slide, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that 2011 was the costliest year ever recorded for extreme weather damage (PBS Newshour, 2011, slide 13).

The planet’s climate has changed, and each year floods, tornadoes, and heat waves strike more and more people, which also, in a cruel irony, ravage the world’s nonrenewable fossil fuel energy sources. In the last two years, weather, plate tectonics, and geography have conspired to join forces in disasters involving our three main energy sources: the BP oil spill of 2010, the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine in West Virginia in 2010, and the Fukushima Daiishi Nuclear Power Plant in 2011. Scholars note that as long as people seek nonrenewable energy sources in hard-to-get-to places, given the unpredictable and increasing nature of extreme weather events, that more disasters like these are inevitable. Today, oil companies have to tread into environments, like the Gulf of Mexico or the Arctic Circle, that are unstable since they are in regions that host either hurricanes or drifting ice sheets. Acknowledging the risks, some analysts have called this energy policy “Energy Extremism,” since more disasters like the BP oil spill will inexorably follow with energy strategies that require drilling in environmentally unstable regions (Klare, 2010, p. 30-31). The world’s fossil fuel markets and the governments that court those markets seem oblivious to science and history—lessons that teachers and middle school students find mind-boggling.

Solution: I present Tim Flannery’s (2005) book We Are the Weather Makers for my students because it lays out both the threats and a wide variety of solutions to global warming that our students and school community might follow. Our goal as sixth grade teachers is to move our students from ignorance to knowledge, from hopelessness to compassionate action. Some of Flannery’s extensive suggestions include the following: buy a hybrid car or take public transportation; buy Energy Star appliances; install solar panels on roofs; insulate homes well; change all light bulbs to compact fluorescent light bulbs; plug all electrical devices into power strips, and then turn off the power strips at night; switch plans with power companies to draw from renewable energy sources; recycle; don’t use plastic bags; resist buying products made with petrochemicals; eat locally, seasonally, and organically; turn off the tap when brushing teeth; use recycled paper; and cancel junk mail.

Here at Catlin Gabel School, our Facilities Director sends out monthly “Energy, Waste, and Water Reports” that detail electricity use, gas use, and water use, along with landfill by weight, recycling by weight, and compost by weight for the buildings on campus. We teachers and students are therefore able to chart our contributions to global warming throughout the year, and we are all aiming for zero waste and reduced carbon footprints.

 

The Nutrition reason

Problem: The book Forks Over Knives alerts us to the fact that“two thirds of adults [in the U.S.] are either overweight or obese, and obesity rates for children have doubled over the last thirty years” (Stone, 2011, p. 4). Obesity, therefore, has been rightly identified as a national health crisis, but what is perhaps less well known is that certain populations are at greater risk than others. The obesity epidemic is complicated, but the inner-urban neighborhood eyeball test can be as instructive as the arcane spreadsheet of a distant PhD when analyzing this issue.

What we see when visiting inner city neighborhoods in Portland is corner alcohol stores and fast food chains, not grocery stores offering nutritious fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. What is more, the poor don’t have places to play—very few parks or community centers. Further, in the inner city schools, PE is being cut, while the stories of unhealthy food in the public schools are ubiquitous. How exactly does childhood obesity connect to poverty and to ethnic background?

Poverty is racial, as a 2011 study of poverty by race and ethnicity in Portland showed. A staggering 52% of African American children live in poverty in our city, followed by 34% of Hispanic American children, 15% of Asian American children, and 10% of White children (Castillo & Wiewel, 2011). Noting that many of these children living in poverty also live in neighborhoods without farmer’s markets and grocery stores, one can also easily surmise that nutritional food and healthy diets are not as accessible to non-white Portland children. For our purposes of looking at food and gardening, we can conclude that not only is poverty racial, so is childhood obesity (Boak, 2007). Recent studies that take into consideration ethnic background in the U.S. find that Hispanic, Native American, and African American populations have higher rates of childhood obesity than Asian Americans and those self describing as White (Caldwell, 2009, para. 1-2).

Clearly, when we start looking at nutrition in our classrooms, our lenses have to expand to include ethnicity, income, demographics, and neighborhoods. That said, the fact also remains that all American children, regardless of ethnic background, street address, or family income level, are at risk of obesity and type II diabetes. There is something in our culture that is funneling our children toward these unhealthy ends.

Solution: The authors of Forks Over Knives tie together nutrition, cooking, the ethical treatment of animals, and greenhouse gas reduction strategies, and they have a simple message for improving our nutrition: eat a vegan diet that is plant-based and consisting of whole-foods. The closer the plant is to its original state in nature, the better. Their vegan diet, they claim, will erase obesity without compromising daily caloric, nutrient, or protein requirements. What is more, a transition to a vegetarian diet free of all meat, fish, dairy, and eggs will help to heal the soil, water, and climate ills facing our world. The authors point out that, at the current rate of population increase, Earth will hold nine billion people by 2050. The majority of those people will be born in China, India, and Africa, and as their incomes rise, they will eat more meat, cheese, and milk products. “The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that meat consumption will more than double by 2050, and milk consumption will grow by 80 percent during that period” (Stone, 2011, p. 35). While advocates of animal-based proteins argue that these increases are logical and beneficial for people’s health, the fact also remains that eating a variety of vegetables, legumes, unrefined grains, seeds, and nuts can supply a person’s daily protein requirements (Mangels, 1999). Another more obvious argument against eating more meat and drinking more milk in an ever-enlarging factory farm model are the deleterious effects upon soil, water, and climate.

The United Nations has found that farm animals create 20% of all human-induced greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide). However, “if every American simply reduced chicken consumption by one meal per week, the carbon dioxide savings would be equivalent to removing 500,000 cars from the road” (Stone, 2011, p. 40). People can also help to conserve water by eating less meat. The April, 2010, National Geographic magazine special issue on water has created a poster entitled “Hidden Water” that shows that “a human diet that regularly includes meat requires 60 percent more water than a diet that’s predominantly vegetarian” (McNaughton et al., 2010). In addition to water use, raising animals for food also “accounts for about 55 percent of soil erosion” (Stone, 2011, p. 39). To recap: we could reduce obesity and greenhouse gas emissions, while also preserving topsoil and water resources, if we ate less meat and animal products. What is stopping us?

On campus, our Director of Food Services regularly comes into our sixth grade classroom to teach lessons on growing, purchasing, and cooking with local produce. These classes are favorites among our students, as they get to do what all sixth graders want to do in school: eat! The sixth grade is also a leader class on campus for growing organic fruits and vegetables for our daily salad bar, enacting the principles of good nutrition, topsoil preservations, and water conservation.

 

The Globalization of food reason

Problem: The opening words of the movie Food, Inc. (2008) sum up the current industrial food system this way: “The way we eat has changed more in the past 50 years than in the previous 10,000, but the image that’s used to sell the food is still the imagery of agrarian America” (Kenner & Pearlstein).There are 47,000 products in modern average American supermarkets, which offer food out of season from all over the globe, encouraging the delusion that the world does not have seasons, that food is not tied to the earth, the weather, or to the seasons (Kenner & Pearlstein).The reality is that our current industrial food system is a factory, not a farm, with a small handful of multinational corporations controlling food from seed to plate. When the global food system is scrutinized in terms of global warming, it is unmasked as a main polluter: “Our food production—our fossil-fuel driven industrial model—[is] one of the biggest culprits, responsible for about one-fifth of human-caused greenhouse-has emissions” (Lappé & Lappé, 2002, p. 19-20).

Let’s look at the situation with chickens. Three or four companies control the beef, chicken, and pork in the U.S., and their goal is the same product every time. The chicken conglomerates today house chickens cheek to beak in giant feedlot barns without light, where they are unable to move around, and they are given antibiotics to stave off the eventual sicknesses that come from poor diet, nonexistent physical activity, and standing in their own feces. All that said, the chickens are bigger now in less time than they were 50 years ago (Kenner & Pearlstein). The same scenario outlined here could describe the life of most cows and pigs in the U.S. The meat we are eating from these factory farms is of inferior quality, and the lives of the animals are not being honored in even this most basic of humane ways.

Other companies, such as Monsanto, are busily engaged in seeking to gain control of the world’s food sources via genetically modified seeds. It is true that Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) seeds helped millions avoid starvation in the 1970s, especially in India, during the so called “Green Revolution,” when high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat, along with tons of NPK chemical fertilizers, gave a few decades of bumper crops. Those same GM seeds and fertilization practices, however, have stripped micronutrients from Indian soil, as the high-yielding varieties were also ravenous, drawing up zinc, manganese, iron, and other micronutrients that healthy soil need to support crops. What is more, decades of dumping chemical fertilizers and overwatering have also poisoned the soil with toxic levels of fluorine, aluminum, boron, iron, molybdenum, and selenium (Shiva, 2008, p. 102). Monsanto and other GM companies are responding by increasing their lab technicians’ time to come up with new seeds and fertilizers that they believe will feed Earth’s swelling population in the 21st century.

The promise established during the early years of the Green Revolution has faded into a bizarre world of the global food economy, where companies that make herbicides are selling us food seeds, and where we are industrializing the food at the cellular, genetic level. Let’s go back and trace the history to figure out an alternate path.

In 1970, Monsanto created Roundup. In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court extended patent law to cover “a live human-made microorganism” (Barlett & Steele, 2008, p. 158). From 1980, when there were zero genetically modified crops being grown in the U.S., to 2007, the amount of land planted with G.M seeds rose to 142 million acres planted in the U.S. and 282 million acres across Earth (Barlett & Steele, 2008, p. 160). In addition, during the 1980s, Monsanto began buying seed companies. Today, Monsanto is the largest seed company in the world (Barlett & Steele, 2008, p. 160). In the 1990s, Monsanto seized upon the opportunities opened by the 1980 Supreme Court case and began patenting life. The Green Revolution turned into the Gene Revolution. Today Monsanto owns 11,000 patents (Butler & Garcia, 2004). Deborah Koons Garcia (2004), director of the movie The Future of Food, believes that the company knows that whoever controls the seeds, controls the food. She speculates that Monsanto does not want biodiversity or food diversity; rather, she says, it wants to buy then patent all the seeds, then take those seeds off the market. Then they will produce only their Monsanto Roundup Ready seeds. Other analysts have come to the similar conclusions about this company, though we as teachers present these conclusions as theory while withholding the company name to protect community members who might work there.

From our perspective in the sixth grade, we are less interested in eviscerating certain companies than discussing farming practices as they relate to Mesopotamia. Therefore, we point out that “farmers who buy Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds [again, we withhold the company name] are required to sign an agreement promising not to save the seed produced after each harvest for replanting, or to sell the seed to other farmers. This means that farmers must buy new seed every year” (Barlett & Steele, 2008, p. 158). Such a practice of agreeing to deliberately let seeds go to waste reverses food growing practices since the founding of the first towns in the Fertile Crescent 9,000 years ago.

The connections between Monsanto, biodiversity loss, dying local economies, and poor nutrition are also becoming more evident, especially upon acknowledging that 70% of processed food—with its high salt, fat, and high fructose corn syrup levels—has a GMO in it. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the army of lobbyists that agribusiness has on Capitol Hill, it’s also against the law to label GMO foods in the U.S. (Kenner & Pearlstein, 2008).

Solution: Knowing that the leading manufacturers of carbon dioxide emissions come from transportation and coal-burning power plants for electricity generation (Flannery, 2005, p. 23 and 62), Vandana Shiva’s indictment of the global food industry that ships temperature controlled vessels around the world is rigorously logical. The solution we tell our students is to eat whole foods, not processed foods; local foods, not food from thousands of miles away; organic foods, not GMO food products; seasonal foods from the Northwest, not bananas from Ecuador in the wintertime. We realize that the children do not purchase the food that their families eat, but if they were to enact these practices, not only would they be allowing farmers to return to more healthy food production methods, they would also be encouraging millions of farmers across the world to save seeds and feed their families and communities with locally grown, organic, healthy food.

In their book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver and her family (2008) recount a year of living in Kentucky eating in this way, which necessitated learning to can and pickle, eat more roots in winter time, and reach out to trade with neighbors who raised the apples, beef, and lamb that her own family could not. Farmers and writers like Wendell Berry have been modeling this practice for years, and we encourage our students to return to it, whenever possible.[1]

On campus we teach a Sweetness of Apples lesson (Reed & Stein, 2009) from the PBS series The Botany of Desire, based upon the book by Michael Pollan (2002). We harvest apples from our own orchard, and then purchase some other organic northwest varieties from a local market, New Seasons, which lists, on their produce bins, the grower name and orchard location. Students not only connect their diet to their campus, they can easily calculate the food miles accrued for the morning lesson.

 

The Oil reason

Problem: As sixth grade teachers, we recognize the urgency and our responsibility toward our students. One of my objectives during the Mesopotamia unit is explore two closely aligned myths: 1. Our world can support consistent and unlimited economic growth, even when China and India begin using the same amount of energy, per capita, as the U.S.; and 2. Oil, coal, and natural gas use can continue in the same way.

In order to assist the deconstruction of the myth of unlimited economic growth, I show Paul Gilding’s (2012) TED talk entitled “The Earth Is Full.” Gilding points out that we would need one-and-one-half earths to provide us with the available fossil fuels to maintain our energy usage for our current global economy.

The second myth is trickier to tease apart, as our daily lives seem to argue for its validity. I woke up in my heated house, had a toasted bagel baked across town, took a hot shower, and then drove my heated car on well-lit streets to a heated, well-lit school. Where is the fossil fuel shortage?

I tell my students that many scientists and journalists, like Kenneth Deffeyes (2005) and Tim Appenzeller (2004), believe that “peak oil,” first predicted by M. King Hubbert (1969, p. 196), is upon us. I explain to my students that since oil is a non-renewable, finite resource, there is day called “peak oil day” when oil producers reach their maximum amount in history they can extract from the ground and refine. That day is peak oil day, and every day after begins the decline of oil on this planet until its eventual depletion. The International Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, notes that 2006 marked the all-time high of 70 million barrels a day of oil using conventional crude oil production methods (Inman, 2010, para. 2-4).

Other writers, such as James Kunstler (2005), draw far-reaching conclusions from this concept: “The oil peak phenomenon essentially cancels out further industrial growth of the kind we are used to” (p. 28). What Kunstler means is that because our global economy is predicated upon the reliable supply and use of oil and gas, and because that supply will begin decreasing until it is gone in the near future, our global economy as we know it is, at best, destined to have to change, and, at worst, doomed. Kunstler goes on to show how the billions of people in the recently developed nations who now seek the automobiles, electricity, and materials goods that the EU and USA have had for the last forty years will push global warming, biodiversity loss, and biosphere pollution to their breaking points.

We’re smart, though, many argue. Scientists will figure out how to solve these problems. Again, Kunstler doesn’t think so. There will be no one technological fix, he says, to the intersecting problems of overpopulation, global warming, and the end of peak oil. Even with the combination of compatible technologies such as carbon sequestration, solar power, wind power, geothermal power, and hydroelectric power, the net energy output cannot match our current needs in the U.S., to say nothing of the energy needs of the rest of the world. He takes nuclear power off the table as foolhardy and unsustainable, and given the events of last spring in Japan as chronicled by BBC News online (2012), his omission seems wise (Kunstler, 2005, chap. 4). Noting the irony that non-fossil fuel energy systems, such as wind turbines, require burning more fossil fuels to produce and maintain the so-called green energy systems, Kunstler nonetheless urges us to move toward clean energy sources, regional economies, and lifestyles that are congruous with the planet’s diminishing energy resources.

While more politically moderate studies suggest that the global economy might slow down but rebound with new technological advances, the fact remains that we have already crested Hubbert’s Peak in the past five years (Deffeyes, 2005, p. 3). Furthermore, it is essential to remember that the remaining oil and natural gas under Canadian tar sands or oil shale in the western U.S. “could provide as much oil as the world’s current reserves, but the current methods of extraction are hugely greenhouse-intensive and environmentally problematic—not to mention expensive” (Henson, 2006, p. 289). Simply put, the world’s cheap, easily harvested oil is gone—and with it, the days of the global industrial food system are numbered as well.[2]

Solution: At Catlin Gabel school, we not only teach Peak Oil and alternative energy in our studies of economics, science, history, and literature, we enact it with our symbolic “Empty the Lot Day,” which is a day that faculty, staff, students, and parents seek to reduce our school’s carbon footprint and do our part to keep the air clean for everyone. We encourage people to bike, walk, carpool, and take public transportation to work, charting the progress year to year, and incentivizing the process throughout the year by providing lunch tokens to teachers who carpool, bike, walk, or take public transportation to campus.

 

The Hunger reason

Problem: One in six Americans will struggle with hunger today (Levy, Mueller, Cochran, Hand, & Two Bulls, 2012, para. 1). This is a disquieting statistic, made even starker by the reminder that adults who struggle to feed themselves cannot often feed their children. In fact, “according to the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture], over 16 million children lived in food insecure (low food security and very low food security) households in 2010” (Feeding America, 2012). One’s heart fills with grief wondering, Is there simply not enough food to go around?

Frances Moore and Anna Lappé (2002) counter this question, though: “For every human being on the planet, the world produces two pounds of grain per day—roughly 3,000 calories, and that’s without even counting all the beans, potatoes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables we eat, too. This is clearly enough for all of us to thrive; yet nearly one in six of us still goes hungry” (p. 15). What then, is the cause of all this hunger?

Joel Bourne, Jr. (2009) notes that global population is booming, but so is global warming and deforestation of land for more production zones. We know how this pattern goes, if we follow Diamond (2005) and Ponting (1991). Acting as mitigates on grain production across the globe, are three other factors: one, global warming is sharply curbing harvests of rice, corn, wheat, sorghum, cassava, and sugar cane across the world; two, staple crops such as corn and soybeans are being fed to livestock as the desire for meat and milk products skyrockets among the millions of new middle class citizens; and three, more and more trees are being cleared to make way for fields that are being converted to biofuels in a well-intentioned response to global warming, which is, in a grimly ironic catch-22, causing erosion, topsoil loss, and desertification, thereby creating more hunger (Bourne, 2009). This is exemplar of the vicious circle involving the triad of hunger-overpopulation-global warming, I tell my students, and it will be the greatest challenge of their lives when they get older.

Solution: Our 5th grade teachers are tackling these issues head-on, teaching the children about local food systems as an antidote to the global food supply chain that is bad for the climate, the land, and the people. In 5th grade, they have the students research CSAs, farmers markets, farm to school programs, the 100 Mile Diet, and the Low Carbon Diet. They use Chew on This (Schlosser & Wilson, 2007), The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Young Reader’s Edition (Pollan, 2009), and What the World Eats (D’Aluisio & Menzel, 2008)to teach local food systems, biodiverse farming practices, sustainable agriculture, and nutritious eating with a low carbon footprint.

In the middle school, including the sixth grade, we continue the work of our lower school colleagues by doing monthly service projects with Portland based community groups, such as The Blanchet House, Urban Gleaners, and the Oregon Food Bank, who are all working to end hunger in Oregon.

I also advocate, in my classroom and in the garden, a turn away from grain for livestock, and land for monocrops or biofuels, and instead a return to the practice of smaller, biodiverse farms that feed families and communities. Biodiverse, organic fields have healthier soils than those used for conventionally farmed monocrops, and organic, biodynamic farmers cause far less erosion and topsoil loss, use far less water, and do not causes long-term soil toxicity as farmers using conventional chemical farming practices do. Looked at in the short-term, organic, biodiverse farms may appear less productive than the larger, conventional chemical monocrop farms, as the former are smaller and seemingly less bountiful. However, looked at in the long-term, the organic biodiverse farms actually do more to address hunger and environmental stability in the world, as their practices preserve soil, do not contaminate drinking water, and do less to add to global warming. Connecting hunger and global warming, I also share with my students Vandana Shiva’s (2009) research, which “has shown that using compost instead of natural-gas-derived fertilizer increases organic matter in the soil, sequestering carbon and holding moisture—two key advantages for farmers facing climate change” (p. 56). When we talk with our students about hunger, we do not simply talk about access to food, although access certainly is a factor; we also talk about climate change, population, geography, vegetarian vs. omnivore diets, local vs. global food supply, short-term bumper crop vs. long-term sustainability, and chemical vs. organic farming. All of these issues are relevant, obviously.

 

[1] Berry is a national treasure. Some of his many books include Bringing It to the Table (with Michael Pollan), The Unsettling of America, and What Are People For?

[2] Other writers also point out that the U.S. has evoked some antagonism around the world from its political support of the despotic Saudi regime in exchange for continued, cheap access to the bulk of the world’s crude oil reserves. See Chapter 11 of Rachel Bronson’s Thicker Than Oil. Still others suggest that both U.S. military strategy during foreign wars and the decisions to maintain hundreds of overseas bases are both predicated upon securing that access to oil. See Chapter 3 of Kevin Phillips’s American Theocracy and Chapter 4 of Chalmers Johnson’s Nemesis. Whatever one’s conclusions, it’s clear that both fossil fuel use and fossil fuel access come at great environmental and political costs.

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