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Global warming: Has organics missed the sustainability boat?

August 2007

2007 feels like the year that the general public and their political followers in government finally grasped the concerns of environmentalists, mainly due to the mother and father of environmental issues; global warming.  Globally we are seeing increasing legislation to tackle the ever lengthening lists of environmental problems identified by reductionist science which gives it a legitimacy that systems based analyses unfortunately does not.  To me however, it feels that organics is about to miss the boat when it comes to global warming.  To see why we need to take a step back into history.  The modern organic movement was founded in the 1960s as part of the birth of ecology and the realisation that humanity was doing serious damage to the biosphere.  After twenty years of rapidly increasing pesticide, herbicide, fungicide and other biocide use, the chickens started coming home to roost, or rather less metaphorically, they totally failed to come home as they were dying out due to DDT poisoning.  Looking back, Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ was probably the key turning point, clearly laying out the problems and pointing towards the solutions.  What was the response of the organic leaders? stop using the biocides, full stop.  The systems view was that as it was effectively impossible to predict what the long term effects of synthetic biocides in the environment would be, organics would stick with naturally occurring biocides as nature already new how to clean up such chemicals.  It is hard to imagine now, with forty years of viable organic production behind us, what a huge step that was at the time.  For non-organic agriculture it was inconceivable in the 1960s to farm without using the ‘wonder chemicals’ that made life so much easier.  It’s not that they thought the organic devotees were a bit crazy, they thought they must be clinically insane to attempt such a path. 

Jumping ahead to the late 1980s and 90s and transgenetic engineering (GE) starts to raise its ugly head.  After a lot of wailing, gnashing of teeth and enough committee deliberations to exhaust a government bureaucrat, the organic movement, under the helm of IFOAM, said the holistic view is that GE is an inherently dangerous technology of which not enough is understood and there is thus considerable chance for it to cause unintended environmental and human health impacts so we are going to avoid it like the plague.  Big agribusiness, pushing up its Stetson, just could not understand why organics banned such a blindingly useful technology that makes plants poisonous to their pests and resistant to good old roundup so you can spray the hell out of everything and the only thing left standing is your crop.  Again, clinically insane is something that may of come to mind.

So today, we have the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) saying that as a result of releasing assorted greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere we are increasing the temperature of the planet.  They go onto say that unless we do something about it we are in for either an uncomfortable to really unpleasant time over the next centuries.  You could not accuse the IPCC of being a bunch of beard and sandal wearing hippies, as it consists of world leading scientists working under the auspices of the UN and the World Meteorological Organization.  Some of our elder scientists and environmental statesmen are considerably less reserved in their judgement and point out that humanity has the ability to create a runaway greenhouse effect that could turn earths climate into that of Venus, with five hundred Celsius surface temperatures.  If we achieve that we could potentially eliminate all life on the planet, even the bacteria, earth would be literally sterile. 

So, what is the response of the organic movement to an environmentally sustainability crisis so certain and so huge that it dwarfs the theoretical problems of biocides and GE?  Er, um, well, ah, oh yes - the Soil Association has launched a green paper on whether we should ban airfreight!  Can you spot any kind of disconnection here?  Why, based on unprovable systems based analysis, organics banned synthetic biocides and GE, but in the face of overwhelming reductionist evidence that we could destroy the biosphere we are sitting twiddling our thumbs as the planet gets ready to burn?  If this was the 1960s we would of banned the use of fossil fuels and a raft of other agricultural activities that released greenhouse gasses, e.g., cows.  If ever there was a time for the organic movement to step up to the plate and take those final steps to make organics completely environmentally sustainable, it is now.  Its pretty clear what we need to do, ban the use of anything powered by or made from fossil fuels, use only fully recycled materials and renewable energy.  Unfortunately, unlike giving up the biocides and saying no thanks to GE, giving up the fossil fuels is a challenge orders of magnitude greater.  It is also a serious challenge to our comfortable western way of life.  To achieve zero fossil fuel use today would probably require a return to animal power.  How about a horse and cart for that box delivery scheme ?  It would certainly kick industrial organics for touch, and put us back on the environmental straight and narrow.  But how many of us rich organic citizens are willing, even able, to give up the comforts and luxuries that fossil fuel bring?  But if we don't are condemning our children’s children to a life far more miserable?  It is time for our movement to grasp the nettle and take the next great step forward to put climate change at the heart of organics, because if we don't we will fail the very vision we set ourselves. 

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Copyright 2008 Charles N. Merfield.