This morning on NPR, scientist and policy consultant Dan Sarewitz from Arizona State University addressed the political costs of global warming. He made a valid point that our use of energy is “the metabolism of modern industrial society.” Clearly, making energy more expensive puts a lot of strain on our society, and “changing that system is not about replacing a few technologies or advancing our level of efficiency along certain fronts." Nor was Sarewitz sanguine about the role of politicians in making real changes. (His office is in Washington, DC, so he is probably disenchanted with politicians because he deals with them every day.) His solution is to look back into history and see what worked. Okay, so far so good, and he had me agreeing with him – but then I heard the rest of the story.
Sarewitz, like so many other scientists who work in hierarchical academia, corporations and think tanks, is fond of top-down solutions. In his case, this means research and development and putting our energy into institutions. His example was the agriculture extension service, which was driven by land grant colleges and allied with farmers to put experimental methods into quick usage on the land. However, the point missing from Dr. Sarewitz’s view is that the Ag Extension Service is one of the culprits that got us into this mess in the first place.
Without the Ag Extension service, it is unlikely chemical companies would have had such a large impact on farming in the 1950’s and 1960’s. In addition, the whole trend towards agribusiness in the 1960’s was pushed by the Extension offices through schools, universities, testing offices, extension agents, 4-H, and FFA. “Get big or get out,” use stilbestrol implants in your cattle’s ears, depend on anhydrous ammonia instead of manure, plant fencerow to fencerow, buy bigger machinery, pulverize the soil, use more hybrids, use more antibiotics – these ideas were heavily promoted right along with plowing at right angles to the slope and production registry programs for hog production. I know this because I was there.
The real solution is to not depend on government for anything. Instead of top-down solutions where scientists get money from the government and big corporations – both with vested interests – we need bottom-up solutions. The real innovation is being done by small sustainable farmers who are trying new methods that use human labor (energy which is in plentiful supply) and making changes based on observation and results. Don’t get me wrong, being a scientist is not the problem. I am a scientist myself, but being a scientist is no safeguard against faulty solutions. I just read yesterday that some scientists in England want to sequester carbon by sinking post-harvest plant biomass into the ocean. In other words, instead of recapturing soil nutrients in corn stalks and other plant remains by decomposition, these scientists want to dump it into the oceans. I assume they also favor massive chemical inputs to restore soil fertility. It would not be surprising to me if this particular research has a money trail that leads back to chemical and petroleum companies.
The bottom line is simple. There are a whole bunch of us already working on REAL solutions to global warming and feeding the world. These solutions will require a lot of people to get off their duffs and actually sweat for a living. This is not a bad thing. The sooner we get to it the better.