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Back to Basics

I suspect most people’s minds have certain themes that run through their heads. There are certain topics their brains like to meditate on, and regardless of how broad their thoughts go, there are a few ruts. One of my mind’s ruts is most generally and easily described as city mouse/country mouse, though it hardly does the topic credit, as it ranges over many areas (technology, politics, worldview, etc.). If you are a consistent reader, you will recognize this theme in many of its faces.

Today’s installment of meditations on this theme deals with the fundamental necessities of life—air, water and food.

Regardless of our station in life or the esoterism of our expertise or anything else, we have need of these three things. From the migrant worker in the field to the CEO of a Wall Street firm, and every single faculty member in between, we must have air, water and food. Therefore, we neglect the condition of sources of these at our mortal peril.

There are a couple of atmospheric phenomena that are barely getting media attention, but that are impacting nearly everyone in the United States on these fundamental levels. La Nina in the Pacific is one of the primary factors in the drought in Texas and the surrounding states. By keeping the Pacific Ocean cooler than normal off the west coast of Mexico, not as much moisture evaporates as normal. This moisture tends to blow eastward due to the prevailing winds, and fall on the south central United States. With the cooler ocean, we get less rain.

Coupled with this, there has been a rather consistent pocket of high pressure air over the same region of the country. Normally, even when La Nina is making things drier than normal, tropical moisture and storms from the Atlantic and Caribbean will push into the Gulf of Mexico and give us a sponge bath. Such weather systems are low pressure.

Think of it like this:  A high pressure system is like a bowling ball and a low pressure system is like a basketball. Weather patterns and regions of high and low pressure push back and forth around the planet, but this high pressure system we have now is like a 30 pound bowling ball stuck in a divot. Therefore, low pressure basketballs colliding with it will simply bounce off and not move it. We see this by the high number of tropical systems this year that curve north to the Atlantic Seaboard of the US, or the one or two in the southern Gulf of Mexico or southern Caribbean that have curved more or less southward. They are deflected away from the Texas and Louisiana coasts by this high pressure system.

These two air patterns have grotesquely impacted the weather of eastern half of the US for sure, and perhaps the west as well. The drought stricken areas have not had the periodic temporary relief of tropical moisture and the northeast is drowning in it. Too much water in one place and too little elsewhere. There are some towns that are running out of water completely and some that have nearly been washed away. If there is no water, money and influence cannot buy it. If there is flooding, money does little to dry it up.

Furthermore, as the air dries out, so does the soil. This creates a negative feedback loop, because water is the primary moderator of air temperature on the planet. Water both in the air and soil absorb the sun’s energy, keeping temperatures moderated, without extremes in daily lows to highs. This is why deserts are so hot in the day and so cold at night—there is no water to keep things constant. Thus, when the air dries up, it pulls water from the soil until it is dry and then the temperatures just get hotter, which causes evaporation to occur even faster, which causes hotter temperatures, which….you get the idea.

When there is flooding, most crops are ruined. When there is severe drought, the same. All plant-based crops (with the notable exception of grapes!) are decimated, including hay, which means that the animal-based crops are also devastated. Farms and ranches both are failing, which means that food is going to become very expensive. Texas is one of the largest meat producers in the country, and with nearly everyone selling even their breeding herds for slaughter (because that is better and more humane than starvation), it will take years for the industry to recover, so meat will be expensive for a long time. Seed can be stored cheaply, planted when conditions become favorable again, and within a few months, there can be a return to plenty. Not so with livestock.

On top of this, efforts to harvest what little has grown have sometimes resulted in grass fires when a rock and piece of machinery hit, creating a spark. These fires burn away the rest of the harvest and may threaten livestock and structures.

Even those of us ‘far-removed’ from the production and/or transport of food and water (like in the academy) will soon be impacted significantly by these crises. And we’re talking more than just having a brown lawn. It is not business as usual.

So what do we do about it? There is actually a lot the academy can do. We have so many esoteric research topics in science and engineering and so much brain power there that there are likely solutions to parts of these problems hidden in discoveries already made, but with the connections unmade.

In the liberal and fine arts, we can help people understand how attitudes exacerbate problems, such as rabid consumerism has driven markets away from basic goods towards things that entertain us but do not produce anything; such as elitism that teaches that manual labor is beneath enlightened people, which breeds ignorance of where our infrastructure comes from and how it works, and an apathy to learn how to be self sufficient. We have forgotten the histories of our forebears and how they overcame the elements to bring us to our high lifestyle.

We can also model responsible living. Note that I do not say ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ living, because these terms have been largely co-opted by an agenda to support certain specific initiatives that look good on the surface but exacerbate the problem when you examine them from ‘cradle to grave’ in their processes.

For example, electric cars are a great idea. However, there are a number of real problems that are significant enough and unresolved enough that making them a political priority is unwise. They consume more resources in their manufacture than a gas-powered car, which uses more fossil fuel. They are a significant disposal problem because their batteries are hazardous waste. That’s the cradle and grave. In between, they have the problem of being a drain on the electric grid when charging. Most people will drive home at the end of the day, plug in their cars, adjust their thermostat in the house, start cooking with their microwave or electric stove (unless they have gas), turn on lights, tv’s and computers, and so on. With the extremes in climate, the electric grid is already under strain just from the effects of the heat outside, then when this sudden very large rush hour drain hits, the system cannot handle it. And there are other problems.

Many of the ideas currently associated with green or sustainable living, though not all, have similar gotchas that make them counterproductive at this time. As academicians in the ivory tower, we need to use our wisdom and knowledge to recognize that there is a difference between theory and reality, that just because it works on paper, it will not likely work anywhere near so well when it meets the vagaries of the real world. Thus, we need to find practical alternatives that actually help moderate our infrastructure issues rather than exacerbate them. We need to recognize where compromise from the ideals we are pursuing will actually help us accomplish bigger goals faster.

Then, we need to communicate this to our community—our students, our leaders, our neighbors. Some of the best solutions are not obvious and cannot be explained as a bumper sticker. We have the opportunity and the obligation to lift the level of dialogue publicly, without simultaneously putting it out of reach of non-academicians.

No, we aren’t likely to make it rain out of a clear sky, or grow a sirloin from a test tube, but we do have the chance to make real contributions. And in an era of heightened scrutiny of higher education, now would be a really good time to pull a useful rabbit out of our hat—a rabbit that will help preserve the basics of air, water and food.


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