Archive for May, 2010

As Corn Goes, So Goes the World

29 May 2010

Sean Carroll’s New York Times article “Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years” provides some thought-provoking information on the pivotal historical role of America in the world’s food production:

Native Americans alone domesticated nine of the most important food crops in the world, including corn, more properly called maize (Zea mays), which now provides about 21 percent of human nutrition across the globe.

That ought to humble those of us who believe that Europeans or those who remained in Asia were responsible for all the glories of mankind. How many of us can even name some of the other eight foods that Native Americans domesticated? I came up with only two instantly: pumpkins and tomatoes. After some contemplation, I came up with a few more, but I also discovered my ignorance of crop history.

Here’s a list from “Facts for Kids: Native American Food”:

Other important American Indian crops included beans, squash, pumpkins, sunflowers, wild rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, peanuts, avocados, papayas, and chocolate.

A more detailed list appears on Waepedia.

As usual, the research to cure my ignorance ended up giving me more than just a few facts. I started thinking about how civilizations identify themselves with their dominant resources. Like the ancient cultures whose ancestors transformed teosinte into modern corn, most of us take corn for granted. We modify corn genetics in the laboratory, endanger it further by extensive monoculture, and then wastefully turn it into ethanol. Corn is in an extraordinary number of products. We even use corn to make plastics. So a devastating corn blight or a severe drought would change our world in ways that would dwarf the effects of Great Irish Potato Famine.

In other words, corn can crash civilizations. It already has. The example I have in mind comes from Joseph Tainter’s classic Collapse of Complex Societies. I loaned my copy to friends, so I’m relying on memory here, but I think this recollection is fairly accurate even though I can’t remember specifics.

When the corn crops of this major ancient Native American civilization began to fail, the civilization failed to adapt. Although they had other food crops they could have switched to, they didn’t. They called themselves “the corn people,” and this over-identification cost them dearly. Much of their population perished or scattered. Major cities were already covered by jungle when Europeans “discovered” the “New World.”

So the early Native Americans were typically human. They deserve credit for slowly developing the unpromising little teosinte plant into modern corn. Their careful improvement of this food crop allowed the rise of complex civilizations based on corn. Unfortunately, when times changed, the stubborn, inflexible part of human nature set in and their reliance on what had always worked proved to be their downfall. Instead of ruling their system, they let their system control them until it collapsed around them. So this is also a cautionary tale; for when their pattern of existence became unsustainable, they lacked the time or vision to change or modify their ways.

I wonder if “the fossil fuel” people will suffer the same fate.




28 May 2010

My guess? We ain’t seen nuthin yet.


How Great the Disconnect?

27 May 2010

It’s not every day that one post covers my passions for words, sustainability, and horses. That is not necessarily a good thing, of course. Many in our high tech society fail to realize how much knowledge about animal power has been lost. This disconnect between the world of nature concerns me greatly since I expect animal power to be far more important to future generations than they would like it to be.

Most Americans have grown sedentary, all too comfortable clicking remote controls. Perhaps some, maybe even many, will once again become comfortable again yelling “Gee!” or “Get Over!” but I suspect that for most this is something that will rank higher on the shock list than digging a vegetable garden by hand. Poverty will prevent most from owning draft animals. Distaste or lack of talent will hamper others.

I hope I’m wrong. Cuba revived its use of draft animals quite quickly, but then they were never as disconnected from their use as America has become. To me, the misuse of one word proves my point.

To explain, here is a cross-post from my horses and horsemanship blog Swift Horse:

Loss of terminology can tell one much about a society. All the college instructors I know complain about not being able to make historical or literary or even religious references that most students will get. This applies to horseman’s terms too, but a number of my compatriots are unaware of their lack in this regard.

How far have most of us come from the days when even non-horsemen at least knew common horseman’s terms? A long way. Lately, I’ve noticed an increase in the use of the odd phrase “reign in” where the author was looking for another way to say “restrain.”

Today I opened my email titled “Edge 319: Emanuel Derman: Breaking the Cycle; Dawkins, Church, Taleb et al on Venter” and found this in the introduction to the Derman interview:

Watching that interrogation of the bankers at the Senate hearings, I had the feeling that this is the way karma works in the universe. Everybody is going to do something not quite right as they act out their destiny mechanically, doing what they unthinkingly believe they have to do. The Wall Street people are going to reflexively overshoot and be too greedy. The Senate people are going to reflexively grandstand and be too uninformed and try to reign them in. There isn’t going to be an elegant solution to any of this.

Edge aka is one of the most intellectually sophisticated sites around, so this small gaffe surprised me. Gaps appear in everyone’s knowledge, but this area is one that widens by the day.

During the last week of the semester, I said something about horses to a fellow instructor, who, in response, asked if horses were solitary animals or liked company.

Gee! Knowledge does not have a free rein these days. It’s curbed and checked and almost hamstrung. Haw!!

Cassandra aka Houyhnhnm

Brave New Texas

22 May 2010

Two articles in the Christian Science Monitor started my morning cascade of thoughts.

“In Texas, Social Studies Textbooks Get a Conservative Make-over.”

“Hey, Texas, Don’t Mess with Textbooks: Public Schools Are No Place for Partisan Agendas”

When I read these two articles, I thought of my job, my politics, a woman I worked with back in the 70s, Europe, and then Gandhi.

I love my job teaching composition and basic research, but I’m well aware that most students today enter college almost completely empty of thought. Others enter rife with opinion uncontaminated by historical knowledge, context, or even facts. It looks to me like Texas wants to increase the number in the latter category. George Orwell would nod, I’m sure.

We all have our biases, but some of us believe our biases are more equal than those of others. I try to teach students how to analyze information and form strong opinions. I have great respect for well thought out, well supported opinion–even when I disagree with it. I’m proud of my dot in the lower left box on The Political Compass website, but that’s my personal position, not something I preach in class. It’s a point of pride with me that over the years I’ve had several students ask me what my politics and/or religious beliefs are. I tell them to ask me after the semester ends. My mantra is “I’m not here to tell you what to think; I’m here to teach you HOW to think.” This means I spend a lot of time dealing with ideology and teaching students how to use logic and how to weigh evidence and how to deal with their own biases.

That some of us need to discover we all have biases reminded me of a woman I once worked with. I adored Carolyn, a fine woman with a deep love of history and a passion for human equality. Even her strong ideals had its limits though. One Monday she came to work after a week of camping with her family. As she walked to her desk, I knew the weekend had not gone well. When I inquired, she ranted about Texans and how a gaggle of obnoxious Texas tourists had ruined the planned quiet weekend in the mountains. After listening for a long time, I pointed out to her that she sounded bigoted against Texans. She pondered for a moment, then said something to the effect that we should still build a fence.

That’s a fond memory. We all have our limits, our biases. And some of us are more limited and biased than others. That led me to think of how many Europeans perceive Americans. Isn’t their stereotypical American loud, ignorant, arrogant, and provincial?

Thinking of that stereotype prompted an analogy: Texas is to the United States as the United States is to Europe.

That started me thinking about Gandhi who, when asked what he thought of Western Civilization, said, “I think it would be a good idea.”

Gandhi also said, “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ” and “God has no religion.”

I assume Gandhi will not be featured in Texas textbooks.


Handbasket Report — Food: What May Not Be in the Basket

19 May 2010

About three years ago, I started finding university studies indicating that higher carbon dioxide levels weakened rather than boosted food production, but non-academic coverage of these reports was, as far as I could tell, virtually non-existent until this UC Davis report “Rising CO2 Levels Threaten Crops and Food Quality” also turned up in the LA Times as “Plant Study Dims Silver Lining to Global Warming.”

According to Google News, a total of 19 news outlets picked up this story. Nineteen. One nine. That ain’t many.

A big story often gets a couple hundred. A huge story more. For example, I just typed in these keywords: oil spill bp. Google News gave me 3775 stories on that one. I’ll grant that the Gulf needs major coverage but isn’t the future of food important too?

OK, the possibility of mass starvation isn’t sexy or gory and, I mean, like really, Americans are like, uh, so fat anyway. Less food will be a good thing, right?

No wait, the story got little coverage because it’s science stuff, an academic study. We all know that scientists just do studies for the money or to support global communism.

Or maybe it’s just because the shelves at the local supermarket are full right now and now is all that’s important.

So, considering the meager coverage this topic generally receives, I was delighted to see Richard Brenneman’s post “Ominous Warning Signs for Big Agra, Food Supplies”

Nice to know someone else is worried about food. I consider his post a MUST READ.


Good Idea, but Not Draconian Enough

19 May 2010

According to today’s WaPo “US Top Scientists Urge Coal, Oil Use Penalties.”

Here’s a key paragraph:

The National Academy of Sciences specifically called for a carbon tax on fossil fuels or a cap-and-trade system for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, calling global warming an urgent threat.

I read this and thought, what a good idea as to the carbon tax and what a bad idea as to the cap-and-trade system. In other words, global warming wasn’t the first thing I thought of when I read about the ideas. My first thought was that this is needed to curb resource depletion and redirect America toward a conservation mentality. Pricing gasoline at, say, $5 or $6 a gallon would also help our budget in the long run.

Unfortunately, the short term pain will almost certainly stop any and all truly reasonable responses to our current predicament. The last time gasoline was around $3 a gallon I received an email petition from an otherwise reasonable family. The petition aimed at “forcing” oil companies to sell gasoline at $2 a gallon. Why? Because Americans NEEDED gasoline to be $2 a gallon.

Well, I NEED ice cream to be calorie-free.

After that email, I realized that even almost all the people I consider to be intelligent and reasonable will just go on and on until they can’t go on and on any longer.

When it’s the American Dream versus practicality or even reality, most choose the Dream, don’t they?

Oh well.


Handbasket Report — A Drop in the Ocean

15 May 2010

For those returning from a long meditative retreat or waking from a coma, there are currently anywhere between 210,000 gallons up to a couple million gallons of oil a day spewing into the Gulf of Mexico from the sunken remains of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The 210,000 gallons a day is the official estimate, and the higher figures tend to be coming from scientists not employed by the oil industry, you know, alarmist types.

You know the sort. Reporters quote types like this in downer articles like “Exxon Valdez Cleanup Holds Lessons for Gulf Oil Spill.” They worry about a few puddles of oil here and there. Whackos all.

We need to appreciate this event for what it is–an opportunity to laud the achievements of the oil industry. Or at least we need to enjoy the spin. If you were meditating or vegetating, you missed the industry theatrics with British Petroleum and Transocean and Halliburton–the usual suspects–pointing fingers at each other about the causes. Now that you’re back though, be reassured, this oil, whatever the daily amount, and the 400,000 gallons (so far) of mysterious and purportedly toxic dispersant chemicals BP’s pumped in to sink the oil slick are not serous problems according to BP’s CEO Tony Hayward.

Want more details? Read the interview with Hayward here:

Too busy getting back into the rat race after those peaceful days in the desert or the high mountains? Too busy tracking down children who joined cults or militias while you were in your coma?

Here’s the short version.

At BP’s crisis center in Houston, Hayward reassured an interviewer from the Guardian about the severity of the oil pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, saying “The Gulf of Mexico is a very big ocean. The amount of volume of oil and dispersant we are putting into it is tiny in relation to the total water volume.”

He added, “In the last four or five years we have made major improvements in safety performance. It has made the company much better … Four years ago it could have been very different.”

Having done a bit of research on BP’s safety record, I found that last comment almost amusing. I mean, if it’s such a drop in the ocean, then why is Hayward at the “crisis center”?


The Academy Strikes Back

13 May 2010

Ah, here’s a letter worth reading: “Open Letter: Climate Change and the Integrity of Science” This link will take you to the “[f]ull text of an open letter from 255 members of the US National Academy of Sciences in defence of climate research.”

The letter also appears in Science if you have a subscription.

The commentary on is also worth a read.

The comment by co-signor Peter Gleick‘s summed it up for me:

“It is hard to get 255 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to agree on pretty much anything, making the import of this letter even more substantial.”


Disagreement is the heart of science, so one of the constant refrains from the denier camp tells much about them: sound science. This means, I gather, nearly complete agreement, nearly absolute consensus. That’s why “sound science” isn’t. Science doesn’t work that way. Research doesn’t work that way. Thinking doesn’t work that way. So, people who want absolutes, consensus, and certainty puzzle and, more often than not, scare me.

I have never understood the appeal of certainty. Mistakes and uncertainties exist to spur more thinking. Certainty obviates thinking. {shudder}


Eat Your Lawn

12 May 2010

The subtitle to “Grow $700 of Food in 100 Square Feet!” by edible gardeners Rosalind Creasy with Cathy Wilkinson Barash is “If more Americans grew a little food — instead of so much grass — our savings on grocery bills would be astounding.”

As I read that, I thought, and we’d save in all sorts of other ways too. For example, we’d save time and WATER. Watering a garden produces food, and watering well mulched gardens doesn’t take all that much water, even here in Colorado. On the other hand, bluegrass lawns in desert climates rank high on my list of pet peeves. They represent mindless conformity and WASTE. (Don’t believe me? Go back and read my old post “Death to Infidel Lawns!”)

People are starting to catch on, but not enough people and not fast enough. A few years ago, I saw an article in a local paper that neighbors were up in arms because some fellow had tilled up his lawn and planted vegetables. I thought the guy ought to have been given some sort of award for patriotism and good sense.

With the current economic conditions, I doubt that he’d take all the heat he once did. In fact, I’m starting to see more and more small patches of food creeping into suburbia.

Some are even showing up as formal versions of my raised beds. For the past ten years, I’ve planted my main garden in recycled galvanized stock tanks, leaky items that’d piled up as we switched the horses over to safer Rubbermaid tanks. When I started using old stock tanks for my garden, leaky tanks were easy to come by and usually free. Now, I’ve had to pay for the tanks I’ve added. Some magazine (Sunset?) published an article on the idea, and now it’s almost fashionable to plant in an old stock tank. I now see them all spiffy with high gloss enamel in yards all over the place.

Here’s my array in its first year. The photo was taken in August of 2000. Since then, I’ve disposed of the tractor tires because of the potential zinc contamination and added some more galvanized tubs. My total square footage though is still under 200 square feet. And our freezer still has peppers and tomatoes and tomatillos to carry me through to the new harvest.

Planting vegetables instead of grass is economically sound, ecologically sound, and, if one uses raised beds, easier to maintain than lawns. I consider growing vegetables a political statement as well as a sound investment of time and money. I still say it. Death to Infidel Lawns!


Unicorns, Fairies, and Endless Oil

11 May 2010

In our government, it’s not at all unusual for one branch to be completely out of sync with another branch.

For example, the US military takes the concept of peak oil quite seriously. On the other hand, there’s the Department of Energy: “DOE Still Disavows Peak Oil Forecast, Despite New Studies”

Perhaps the DOE will change its collective mind if (when?) the Deepwater Horizon disaster coats all their unicorns and fairies with their endless oil, leaving the DOE DOA.