The Real Message of the First Thanksgiving

November 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

I can’t remember the time I first heard the story of the first Thanksgiving, but it very well may have been around kindergarten. We all know this story – the Pilgrims land on Plymouth Rock, and are helped to adapt to live off the land by helpful Native Americans – led by Squanto, of course. It was a celebration of the harvest, and only later did it become a national holiday.

As we grow older, we begin to learn a bit more about Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims. Certain details are revealed, corrected, adjusted. We learn that Pilgrims are often misrepresented as dressing like Puritans. We learn about the significance of the Mayflower contact. We learn about all those Pilgrims who died in that first winter. We learn about the massacres that occurred soon after. We learn about the way that this relationship with tribes like the Wampanoag quickly turned towards prejudice and persecution.

When we finally begin to know about something, we begin to contextualize it. You can the first Thanksgiving it as the epitome of intercultural exchange and understanding. On the contrary, you can see it as the beginning of the “white man” beginning his forceful dominance of the American continent.

I choose to see it as a parable of sustainable agriculture.

There’s an important question that kind of gets blown over in schools. Yes, the Native Americans showed the Pilgrims how to farm successfully, but why was this so?

The Pilgrims came from Europe, where farming was practiced much like it is in modern America – if perhaps, on a much smaller scale. Large, sprawling fields grew one crop at a time – usually wheat. Many, many peasants would work these fields night and day, from planting to harvest. What their field didn’t grow, they could trade or buy from others, or at least their Lords could and would.

When the Pilgrims first began to farm in New England, they more than likely attempted to model their efforts on those of their former homeland. This wouldn’t work here, however, and here’s why:

The crops grown in the Americas – in particular, corn – requires quite a lot of nutrition from the soil, and often removes most of the nitrates – one of the most important nutrient groups – within a few plantings. In Europe, similar problems were taken care of by a simple cycle of crop rotations. In Plymouth, however, there was neither the manpower nor the available farmland to do this. Thus, the information imparted by Squanto and his people was invaluable.

How was it that the Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims to farm? The method by which Native Americans had been planting and farming for countless centuries prior: Using the Three Sisters.

The Three Sisters is perhaps the most ingenious yet simple agricultural method ever devised. A few corn stalks – maize, as they would call it – are planted, surrounded by squash plants, and covered by climbing beans. The three work together, benefiting each other, creating ideal environments for each plant.

The maize, which is the largest grain provider of the three, provides a structure on which the climbing beans can grow. The beans in turn puts nitrogen back into the ground, while the squash works to prevent weeds and pests.

If modern farms took a note from the Native Americans, we’d be in much better shape agriculturally. Today, we are the Pilgrims of the modern era, and boy are we screwing up. We, just like our forefathers, are trying to farm in large monocultures – huge, one crop farms, that grow anything from corn to chickens to beef – and only that. There’s plenty wrong with this system of farming, and rather than listing them, I’ll just explain the solutions.

Polycultures. Polycultures are the solution. The Three Sisters are a perfect example of polyculture, and are exactly why and how the first Thanksgiving needs to become a something that teaches us more than history. In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan presents the working of a “grass farm,” a pristine example of polyculture at work. On this farm, grass feeds the pigs and cows, who help the grass and other crops grow better via their manure. Pigs work hand in hand with the compost to create better crop outputs and to renitrogenate the soil. Without use of pesticides, antibiotics, or most industrial feed supplies, this farm, and those like it, produce unbelievable quantity at a fairly sizable quantity.

The other reason why this polyculture is to be preferred as the premeir method of farming is the low use of fossil fuels. The problem that the Pilgrims faced early on was, as I mentioned, the need for a large labor force to work their giant monocultures. In modern society, we have replaced the slaves and peasants of our past with tractors and plows, reapers and combines, all of which are making us slaves to big oil instead. A polyculture, since everything is produced on-farm, can be run with little manpower and little machinery – an incredible bonus for our nation and our planet.

On a final note, let me wish a happy Thanksgiving to all. I hope you are all safe and healthy, and lastly, I hope that we all learn from our past this Thanksgiving.

 

 

Satire Hits Home: “Nation Suddenly Realizes This Just Going To Be A Thing That Happens From Now On | The Onion – Americas Finest News Source”

November 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s technically satire. It’s the truth. Read it. Laugh, then catch yourself and realize its not a joke.

 

Nation Suddenly Realizes This Just Going To Be A Thing That Happens From Now On | The Onion – Americas Finest News Source.

 

Dark Knight Rises Hits Home on Energy Issues

July 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

 

ATTENTION: MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT!!!

For those of you who made it past that warning, I’m safely assuming that you’ve either seen The Dark Knight Rises or just don’t care (and should reconsider your priorities) because this movie, as you likely know, was EPIC. While I could ramble on for hours about the merits of the movie, there is, as always, that specific aspect of the movie I want to discuss: One of the major plot points of the movie centered around clean, sustainable energy.

Christopher Nolan‘s Gotham is designed to be a mirror of real life. Over the three movie arc, the city has been plagued by issues with clean water, terrorism, an income gap, organized crime, corruption, and everything in between. For the third and final movie of the trilogy, however, Nolan decided to tackle perhaps the biggest real-world issue he has to date: the environment. Right from the start, Bruce Wayne and Miranda Tate are involved in a discussion about a sustainable energy project that they had invested in. As it turns out, the project, which was incredibly expensive, did in fact successfully create a nuclear fusion-powered device –  something in our world that we are years away from.

The problem with the nuclear fusion device parallels the issues faced throughout history with nuclear power: There is incredible danger involved, in contrast with the incredibly high levels of efficiency. If everything goes right, nuclear power is the perfect solution. If not, however, the damage would be catastrophic – in the case of Bruce Wayne’s device, being able to be turned into an immensely powerful nuclear bomb.

My point? As I always love to point out, sustainability and environmentalism is truly becoming mainstream – do I sense a Captain Planet movie in the making? (PLEASE CHRISTOPHER NOLAN, PLEASE!)

 

Announcing GEF Institute’s Sustainability Literacy Blueprint | Green Education Foundation GEF

July 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

Check out this awesome post from the Green Education Forum all about sustainability education!

Announcing GEF Institute’s Sustainability Literacy Blueprint | Green Education Foundation GEF.

The History of Environmentalism: Part Three: Making a Mess (The Industrial Revolution)

July 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

When we last left our planet, the Middle Ages were dawning, and people were crowding closer and closer together. Sure, there were some ups and downs – kingdoms rose and fell, peoples who were once considered barbarians settled down and became the emerging peoples of Europe, and intercontinental trade was once again begun, on a scale like never before. Perhaps the most important change during this period of time, however, was the largest influx of people to cities the world had seen to this point. As you would imagine, when more and more people crowd together, they create more and more waste. But this is just where the problem begins.

The Industrial Revolution, which followed the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, is perhaps the most significant turning point in the history of environmentalism thus far. With the mechanization of the Western world came a whole new set of problems and challenges. First and foremost, what was powering these machines? Coal, and a lot of it. The problem? Coal is dirty. To create the steam needed to run the newly mechanized world, ungodly amounts of coal were ripped from the British landscape, and then from all over Europe, the United States, and eventually from the entire world.

If you think that the environmental impact of mining all of this coal was pretty serious, the environmental impact of burning all of this coal eclipses that by a long shot. A personal favorite anecdote that I’ve always been told about this period of time involves the adaptation of a species of insect which was forced to adapt by becoming black in order to blend in with the soot-covered buildings of London. From coal mines to cities and factories, there was coal dust, soot, smog, and smoke in the air everywhere – by far the most pouted skies in history.

This environmental impact was not the only effect of the industrial revolution – there were plenty of other things that resulted out of the Industrial Revolution, though most of them would end up being detrimental to the environment in the long run. Our consumerist culture, our complete disregard for our world’s air and water supply, a lack of concern for the limits of our natural resources, and the exploration and exploitation of fossil fuels would all play a role later on in history.

Before I wrap this up, let me remind you that the Industrial Revolution wasn’t all bad. The technological advances led to a higher standard of living for the world at large, and created widespread employment and limitless opportunities. Social mobility finally peaked out from it’s hiding place, and the old world order began to decline. Perhaps most importantly, we could never fix the environmental problems of the early industrial revolution without the technologies it helped to create.

Environmental Video of the Week (7/1 -7/7/12) DOUBLE FEATURE

July 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

This week I’m excited to present you with not one, but two insanely awesome environmental videos. Both come from the amazing series, “The Story of Stuff” on YouTube.

The first video is a unique take on the anti-bottled water campaign. Not only does the video cover the dangerous effects of the bottled water industry, it delves into how and why it got to be the way it is, and provides plausible solutions for the problem.

The second video explains something that even I find very difficult to understand, the Cap and Trade system:

 

 

Environmental Video of the Week (6/24 – 6/30/12)

July 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

So, I know this is coming a little late, but this is a video you have to see.

Ever have trouble defining sustainability? I have. Well, this video will clarify things for you almost perfectly.

Check it out:

Green App of the Week (6/24 – 6/30/12)

June 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today’s App: Eco-Labels

Organic. All Natural. GMO Free. Animal Welfare Approved. Antibiotic Free. Dolphin Safe. Earth Smart. Fair Trade Certified. What on earth do these all mean?! These are the labels that we see every day on our canned goods, groceries, cleaning supplies, meats, and everything in between. They confuse us. We wonder which are more important, and if manufacturers are even telling us the truth about how their products were produced.

This week’s app, Eco-Labels, helps you to decipher just what these manufacturers are trying to tell you. Once you find the label in question in the app’s list, a simple click opens you up to wealth of information. First and foremost, it tells you what the label means. Next it answers a few important questions: Is the label meaningful? Does it have weight in the world? Is it widely accepted as a truthful label? Once you find that rating – usually described with terms such as “highly meaningful” or just a plain “No” – the next thing the app informs you on is whether or not the label is verified by an independent source – basically, does someone other than the company that made the product have any input into the label that gets put on it. Other information the app provides is whether or not the label is consistent, and whether industry members get input into the regulations of the label.

One of the things I really love about this app is that not only does it give you a rating or piece of info – i.e., doesn’t just say that the label is verified – it also explains why. Sometimes these explanations are only a sentence or two, but other times they’re quite extensive, spanning paragraphs of unbelievably useful information. Another favorite feature of mine is, in actuality, so simple that it’s brilliant – it includes pictures of the labels! One last feature of the app that it think makes it more useful than other apps of its kind? A search bar.

Overall, this app is simple, user-friendly, and if anything is just a little too all-inclusive.

My Grade: A

 

The History of Environmentalism: Part 2: Lighting the Fire (Early Civilizations – The Middle Ages)

June 24, 2012 § 1 Comment

drought

drought (Photo credit: IRRI Images)

In the beginning, people lived in harmony with the environment. However, following the Neolithic Revolution, agriculture spread and people began to settle down. So began humanity’s conquering of the environment. In particular, the three major issues facing our environment as history turned towards the Middle Ages were the spread of agriculture, the increased use of water, and the creation of unprecedented amounts of waste.

Agriculture Spreads and Grows

Agriculture by definition does not have to be environmentally damaging. However, early techniques, such as slash-and burn agriculture, had severe effects on the environment when done in increasing quantities. Deforestation by any means, as was necessary to create much of the land needed for irrigation, has a wide spectrum of dangers, ranging from the atmospheric to the hydrological, and including a devastation of biodiversity. Irrigation isn’t much better, as the diversion of water severely damages aquatic ecosystems, and destroys soil quality downstream. Continuous farming dries out soil and drains it of it’s life-supporting minerals.

The early farmers soon started to discover that they were causing these problems for themselves. Many of them found new ways to farm that were better for the land. The Iroquois people of the northeastern part of what eventually became the United States used a farming method known as the “Three Sisters,” in which they planted corn, climbing beans, and squash together, allowing them to grow and mutually benefit each other, while keeping the soil fresh. Other civilizations began to rotate their crops, allowing fields a year or so to sit and regain their nutrients, often planting nitrogen-fixing plants like beans to help replenish the soil.

Unfortunately, despite improvements in sustainable agriculture, as the world moved into the early centuries CE, the population of our planet grew at previously unheard of rates. Due to this, sustainable practices often had to be ignored in order to survive, with farmers choosing to produce as much food as possible, without concern for the future. This would not only not improve, but worsen in the centuries to come.

Water Waves Goodbye

Irrigation for increasing amounts of farming already required a ton of water as the centuries rolled on, but agriculture is not the only thing that required water. People need water to survive, and they need it ready on a daily basis, clean, and ready to go. Wells sprung up around the world, drawing gallons upon gallons of water out from underground. Damns diverted water from rivers to reservoirs and cisterns, where water could be stored, to aqueducts, which moved it all around the world, to places it never had reached before. This became a self-perpetuating problem – the more water that you could move in store, the more people who could live on our planet, and therefore more water was needed.

This increase in water usage didn’t necessarily show any negative effects right away. However, like just about every other environmental problem our world has faced, the effects would show up later on in history.

Waste Grows Alongside Cities

So now that agriculture has grown, there’s generally enough food to go around, and water is plentiful as well. New advances in agriculture seem to happen one after another, after another, and it seems that each day another group of people no longer has to farm and can turn to a new specialization, from pottery and basket weaving in the beginning, to skilled metal-smithing and jewelry making later on. Where better to practice your trade, and, more importantly, to sell your wares, than in a city. People flocked to these cities, to work, to sell, and most importantly, to live.

Cities have a unique problem – they’re packed tight. On a farm, you have maybe 10 people living on a farm with a 10 mile radius, while in a city you have no less than 10 to 100 times that (at a minimum) living in the same sized space. Human beings create 3-4 pounds of biological waste each day, not counting any non-human waste they may create. When people were out hunting and gathering, nature took it’s course with the materials, breaking them down, often before any other humans reached the same site. On a farm, there’s plenty of space to take care of the waste, and not too many people producing it. Unfortunately, in a city, that isn’t necessarily the case.

In a city, the problem of what to do with waste became a major problem. With so many people in such a crowded place, that waste begins to take up a lot more space than is necessarily available. As cities develop, and streets are paved, the amount of available space shrinks even more. In other words, humanity was headed down a dangerous path.

Did anything improve as the Middle Ages dawned? Stay tuned to find out!

Environmental Video of the Week (6/17 – 6/23/12)

June 23, 2012 § Leave a comment

For the second time this week, I’m proud to introduce a new weekly series, the Environmental Video of the Week! Each week, I’ll post and review a video related to the environment or sustainability that I found particularly moving, informative, or in this week’s case, just plain fun.

Check it out. This week’s video is “A Beginner’s Guide to Giving a Damn (About Climate Change)” from Live Earth.

So why do I like this video? Well, let’s start with the obvious. It’s just fun! With it’s adorable cartoon-cutout animals, bright colors, humorous dialogue, and hilarious sound effects, it’s hard not to enjoy this video. The video is accessible to people of all ages, intelligences, races, beliefs, etc – making it an all around useful tool for introducing environmental conservation to anyone.

One of the things that particularly struck me about the video is its message. The video exists to promote the same thing I do – to provide small, simple ways to make a huge impact on our environment – in a good way, of course! This message is exactly what the world needs, and for that, I chose to feature this video as my first Video of the Week.

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