As we slowly overcome the inertia that has restrained our activities for the past several years, I find myself wondering whether our future will be brighter than the past, and whether we ever really learn from experience.
To tell the truth, I have my doubts as more and more things I once knew as blazing fact fall by the wayside, leaving me with the queasy notion that if I keep after it long enough I will reach a point of terminal ignorance-the reverse of the old mechanic’s adage, “If you take it apart and put it back together enough times, eventually you’ll have two of them.” For the most part, this problem lies at the feet of that beast we call “The Paradox,” a two-headed creature with bad breath and even worse timing, who has this awful habit of showing up at the brink of success and saying, “Damned it you do, and damned if you don’t.”
Take, for example, the actions of public officials of a growing community who approve plans for urban development in what has heretofore been an agricultural or rural area. The purpose is to provide more residential, commercial, and industrial capacity to meet increasing demands, and few would argue the legitimacy of their desires. It’s those unintended or unforeseen consequences that generally provide the excitement after the original hoopla dies down: increased population yields more traffic leading to more roads and more services with bigger parking lots…ad infinitum.
I recently reviewed a research report on loss of agricultural land to urbanization, in which it was pointed out that in fact three-quarters of the decline in agricultural land has been the result of other factors. While I agree that urbanization per se may not be a major driver in the loss of arable land, I don’t think this means we should curtail discussion on the subject of development and its impact on soil loss, water and air quality, and the potential impact of these on agriculture. In fact, I would hope that future studies might wish to consider: (1) conversion of prime ag-land (where it should be patently obvious that all land is not created equal); and (2) accelerated soil loss almost everywhere as a result of increasing development. I’d be interested in the results of any analyses you’ve seen in these areas, as I would very much like to present an article on these combined impacts: urbanization, conversion of especially productive land, and accelerated soil loss in response to population growth, increased development, and suburban encroachment into traditional agricultural lands and the accompanying expansion of agriculture into less productive and heretofore relatively undisturbed areas. I will welcome an article of this nature with open arms with the stipulation, of course, that the title would have to be somewhat shorter.
All too often left out of discussion in meeting the legitimate need for urban (and suburban) expansion is the exploration of alternatives that envision the evolutionary nature of development…that it just doesn’t cease with the completion of the project currently under discussion. Though I have seen a few projects that I thought were environmental disasters from day-one, I think we face a far greater-and decidedly more certain-danger from the aggregation of numerous smaller projects in which their linked effects have gone unnoticed until a triggering event brings about calamity. Imagine that.
I’m still wobbly in my thoughts about the establishment of regulatory sticks and carrots. Philosophically I resent them, but from a practical standpoint I have come to question my stance…particularly where we get into the issue of deeply entrenched self-interests. It seems to me that the preservation of a free market requires a strong enough dose of self-restraint tossed in with the self-interest to call that self-interest “enlightened”…and self-restraint is a precious commodity in this day and age.My concern with the ag-land loss study is not whether its conclusions are valid, but whether they’re germane. Indeed, I wonder whether they might serve to mask more fundamental issues, such as (1) an accelerating loss of soil as a result of increasing development, and (2) an acceleration in the changes to the ecosystems that have brought us to where we are. I don’t know whether or not “global warming” is good, bad, or even really for real. I have no way to measure the Earth’s ability to absorb the industrial-age assault-alone or in conjunction with other non-routine events-or whether the long-range results will be positive or negative for life as we know it. I think I can say with some certainty that the world my grandchildren will inherit, as well as their ability to adapt to it, will be different…and maybe far different even from what I can imagine. Yes, these possibilities concern me, but what scares the living hell out of me is that, as the impacts of these changes become more pronounced, we will see the rise of tyrants peddling draconian solutions. And why not, if we’re not willing to show self-restraint and ask the same of our elected and appointed officials? My grandchildren might wish that I had not been so philosophical about this and other issues that indenture them.