Tuesday, July 07, 2015

"Then Everybody Can Have Some Berries"

File:The Lorax.jpg

One of the crops that grow particularly well in our Pacific Northwest climate are berries. For the past several years, our schoolyard garden has grown strawberries and raspberries, and this year we added blueberries. So far, over the course of several growing seasons, we've not once had a berry survive until it was ripe. No matter how carefully we adults eagle eye those hard, green, immature berries, every one of them gets picked too early. In fact, this year, many of our strawberries were harvested early in the spring in the form of a tiny bouquet of white and yellow flowers. 

At least this year most of the un-ripe blueberries were consumed, as one of our three-year-olds discovered she had a fondness for sour fruit. She went through our entire crop in a single sitting. Growing up, they always warned us kids that eating green berries would give us tummy aches. Apparently, that's not always the case, but I'm tempted to revive that myth for next year's efforts. That said, we've hopefully remedied our problem of early harvests with the addition of our new greenhouse, an operation that will allow us to better control harvesting so that our communally grown plants benefit more than just a single sour berry lover, while still retaining the freedom of our little playground "grazing" garden.

I'm currently reading Jared Diamond's book, Collapse. Whereas his book that preceded it, Guns, Germs and Steel, took a look at the factors that underpin "successful" societies throughout history, this one is about the conditions that cause civilizations to rise to great heights before failing, with a focus on those that did so spectacularly. The ancient Mayan civilization is a case in point, having risen to become one of the most prosperous, creative, and thriving societies in the world, only to, in very short order, fall apart. Providing example after example from history and prehistory, Diamond is meticulous in laying out the dynamics that caused each demise, drawing parallels not just to one another, but also to our modern times. He has identified a set of five factors, any or all of which can cause a collapse, some of which are beyond human control, but most of his examples are case studies in human shortsightedness, especially regarding economic and environmental activities.

In case after case, from the Polynesian kingdoms to the Mayans in Central America to the Anasazi in what is now the American Southwest, as well as civilizations that rose, prospered, and the fell on every continent, the seeds of their demise are found in a failure of foresight, usually driven by an elite that was either unable or unwilling to give up a little today in order to have a tomorrow. Or, as we might say today: their lifestyles were "unsustainable," yet they pursued them to the bitter end. 

The most stunning example to me is the story of Easter Island, an isolated land that was once heavily forested by the largest palms ever known, growing to nearly 100 feet high, with trunks seven feet in diameter. When humans first settled the island, those trees became the foundation of a great society, providing not only building and boat making material, but the sweet sap could be fermented to make wine or boiled down to make sugar. The nuts were a delicacy and the fronds useful for everything from thatching and baskets to mats and boat sails. By the time Westerners "discovered" Easter, however, those palms were gone, the island completely deforested, the farmlands exhausted, and the once thriving civilization that built those mysterious giant stone heads reduced to only a few hundred natives scratching out a meager existence. Someone made the decision to cut down that last tree the way the Onceler did in Dr. Seuss' masterpiece The Lorax.

Of course, there is no way to know exactly what happened on Easter because they were a pre-literate society and the stories come to us thousands of years later as part of an oral tradition, but as I read Diamond's book it becomes clear that a major contributor to collapse, perhaps the major contributor, are elites who chose the maintenance of their privileged lifestyle, their greed, despite the evidence before their very eyes that it was coming at the expense of the long term success of the rest of their civilization.

The girl who picked that bouquet of strawberry blossoms isn't a member of any sort of "elite," but by skimming off those flowers for her own short term pleasure, we were left without berries for the rest of us. The girl who loves the green berries, deprived the rest of us of our share of the bounty in pursuit of her short term enjoyment. I'm not blaming these girls for anything because they are simply children exploring their world, but I do blame adults, who should know better, when they destroy our Commons in pursuit of their own short term self interest.

There are no new lands to discover on our planet and, very slowly, maybe too slowly, we are beginning to understand that the pursuit of our short term convenience and pleasure is making our world increasingly less livable. There is still a ridiculous debate centered in the US as "climate deniers" continue to advocate for their own short term self interest, but much of the rest of the world is waking up to the fact that we're going to have to change our ways, and quickly, if we aren't going to "collapse."

Last week, the Greek people voted overwhelmingly to reject economic austerity measures that the elites representing the European Union are attempting to force upon them. I have a particular fondness for Greece and her people, having lived there as a boy and traveled there more recently as an adult. I've been engaged for the past couple of days in fascinating and alarming discussions on Facebook and elsewhere with smart people who disagree about what has happened, what could happen, and what should happen. It's a mind-bendingly complicated situation, with so many moving parts, ideas and opinions that it's nearly impossible to know which end is up. It's become clear to me that anyone who claims to know what is happening, or what should happen, or what could happen, is just guessing right along with the rest of us. Historians of the future will, of course, be able to tell us what we did right or wrong, but in these unprecedented times, I must commend the Greek government for turning toward democracy in the search for answers. There was nothing that required them to make this a matter for referendum, and indeed, the bankers warned them not to, but in lieu of a clear path forward, they turned to the people. And the people have spoken. "No."

The farther we get away from the worldwide financial crisis of 2008, the clearer it becomes to me that our international banking system has been engaged in a kind of economic clear cutting operation whereby they gave irresponsible subprime mortgage loans to people who couldn't afford them, packaged them up as ticking time bombs called "mortgage backed securities" then sold them to pension funds and cities and countries throughout Europe, skimming off hundreds of billions in the process. The biggest banks, who knew exactly what they were doing, then bet that those bombs would explode, which they did, resulting in the big banks buying the smaller ones at a great discount, raking in billions more in profits from the people they bankrupted, and blackmailing taxpayers for trillions in bailouts while the rest of us lost our jobs, homes, and standards of living. The Greek people alone bailed out their bankers to the tune of $30 billion. Governments around the world took on massive debt, then, from the very people who caused the problem, which is the primary reason they are all so deeply in debt today.

Now these bankers, stuffed with green berries, are standing before the final Truffula trees demanding that we let them cut them down. The Greek people have said, "No."

This might seem like it is just about Greece with its economy that is about the same size as a major American city, but there are a half dozen other nations in Europe that appear to be headed toward a similar conflict with the technocratic bankers at the helm of Europe's economic ship. And those bankers seem hell bent on cutting down that last damn tree. That tree belongs to all of us.

A couple weeks ago, I was in our garden with the girl who consumed our entire crop of blueberries. There is still some hope for a few strawberries and raspberries and we were discussing them. She told me she really wanted to pick them because they were so "good for my tummy." There were several other children with us, listening to our conversation. One by one they said that they didn't like green berries, but they did like ripe berries. Then this three-year-old said, shrugging, as if teaching us all a lesson she had now learned, "We have to have patience. Then everybody can have some berries."

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, teacher Tom!