A Plague of Viral Green Memes


World MapAnyone who follows this blog knows that my wife and I are using sustainable permaculture methods to run our small, organic farm. My wife and I both firmly believe that too many Christians ignore our environmental responsibilities—we need to live on less and take better care of our resources. You’ve read that here many times, too.

So we have some familiarity with the green movement and the figures it uses to whip up hysteria. The latest viral meme to hit some Christian Web sites (those that tend to lean more left than right) takes the form of this link to My Footprint.

Unfortunately, I know that the figures behind this quiz are highly questionable. Sustainability has been long questioned because the basis often used by green advocates is ridiculously low. Paul Ehrlich, a widely admired green advocate, “prophesied” that the Earth would be ravaged by the time we hit the 1990s. We know that this was patently false, yet green advocates continue to use Ehrlich’s ridiculous assertions and statistics in their message.

Most people do not understand how empty our planet is or how much arable land is available. Anyone traveling across the United States can see that this country is basically uninhabited. The actual land used for dwellings is remarkably small. This is true over much of the earth. To see how empty the world is, consider this:

Land masses area total: 1,597,676,459,241,800 sq. ft.
Population estimate for the Earth as of July 2005: 6.5 billion

Now divide the one by the other. You will find that there is nearly a quarter million square feet per person. If you can’t sustain one person off a quarter million square feet, well, you’re a fool. That’s 5.7 acres per person. But since single individuals come nowhere near requiring that amount of food production or housing space, we are nowhere close to filling up the earth or running out of land that can produce food (and the deserts and other uninhabitable spots are more than countered by the amount of water-based living and aquaculture. This also fails to factor in that a third of the population of the planet is not adult; the world’s two billion children aged 0-14 require even less space and food production acreage.)

One of the greatest conceits of the figures (go ahead, take the test) is that it operates off surface area and not volume of space. Most resources exist in volume of space, not merely area, but this is never factored into green data. For instance, our food supplies are using volume more efficiently by growing taller plants that yield more vertically or by utilizing stacked growing containers. Nor is living space confined to a single, above-ground story. Much of the world’s population lives stacked in multi-floor dwellings. This takes more pressure off the dwelling space requirements. Even then, if you gave every person on the planet a 20′ x 20′ room to live in, restricting those rooms to a single level, the amount of surface space taken would be less than an area the size of the state of Michigan. Again, we are nowhere close to filling up the planet.

And even if this were not the case, we have come long ways in getting more food out of an acre of land. Too often, green advocates use production figures close to worst case scenarios, but those production figures are an order or two of magnitude too low when using today’s far more efficient farming methods. Those low figures create fear that puts money into the pockets of the green movement. There are six billion mouths to feed and no indication that we are anywhere close to not being able to feed them. Famine in the 21st century is a political construct. This is true of poverty in general. Without reforming the oppressive governments that typically keep poor nations poor, current efforts to eliminate poverty are misguided and a waste of money and resources. The same folks who are trumpeting the One program or Live8 learned nothing from the abysmal failure of LiveAid.

Yes, we need to live more sustainably, especially in the United States. But as far as requiring more Earths to sustain you or me? Well, you know what Disraeli said about lies, don’t you?

8 thoughts on “A Plague of Viral Green Memes

  1. OK..I did my part today…but it is more expensive you know. I went to Trader Joe’s (don’t know if the Trader has reached you folks out there yet) and bought the following:
    DHA Omega 3 eggs
    organic free-range chicken
    angus ground beef
    organic milk
    Kashi cereal

    It’s a no-brainer out here in CA. People buy this stuff all the time. We may be the “land of the fruits and nuts” but overall we are healthier fruits and nuts…:)

    Unfortunately, unlike the South and Midwest, we don’t have a church on every corner. However, fortunately, we do have a health food market or gym on every corner.

  2. Gaddabout

    Diane, upon my arrival in California I was given a Perrier and a motivational tape. I was also allowed to list a CatScan as a film credit. God bless California.

    Dan, the thing I find ironic with environmentalists is it’s much more convenient to be one when you can afford it. I would love to drive a hybrid-powered car (I am required to drive for my job), but I can’t afford it. I would love to buy organic foods, but they far outprice my income. There are lots of things I would love to do to live a more eco-friendly life, but they come with a price tag in this country that currently exceeds my ability to pay. I suppose the balance of that is I cannot afford to live a particularly excessive lifestyle, either. No SUVs in my family!

  3. Diane,

    I’m going to rib you a little here, but please don’t take it too harshly. I just want to show why what you just said reveals the weakness of many of the arguments in favor of what you are doing.

    You said you bought:
    DHA Omega 3 eggs
    organic free-range chicken
    angus ground beef
    organic milk
    Kashi cereal

    I will quote you prices on these things (based on where I live—I know these because I do all the shopping) and then ask a big question:

    A dozen organic eggs like you purchased cost $3, while the “non-organic” can be had for $1 or less. If I raised the chickens myself, eggs would be almost free if the hens were later slaughtered for meat (see below.)

    The organic free range chicken costs $6 a pound. Regular chicken costs $4 a pound (and only $2 when on sale, so let’s split the difference and call it $3. The free range never goes on sale.) Raising them myself costs about $1 a pound.

    Organic ground beef goes for about $4.50 a pound here. Regular ground beef goes for about $2.75 a pound. Raising the beef myself would probably be cost prohibitive for a small farm.

    Organic milk. We dring organic milk and it’s a major drain on our budget! A half gallon here costs $3.69 a half gallon, but for ease we’ll call it $3.75. A half gallon of regular milk costs about $1.50 but regularly goes on sale for $1. Let’s split the difference and call it $1.25. Having a cow for milk would be difficult to judge, so I’ll just leave it off the calculations.

    Kashi Cereal is about $3 a box when on sale and it’s almost always on sale where I live, so it messes up the calculations.

    Anyway, the cost to you to buy these things the way you did was $20.25. Buy non-organic versions and you spend $11. You spent almost twice as much to buy what you did. That means that you have to have a job that pays significantly more in order to handle your food intake. Because higher paying jobs are usually not as common near where someone lives, you will also pay more to drive to where you work. You will work harder for more money and will therefore have less time to do non-work-related things. Not only that, but you polluted the environment more by driving your car farther, and you will have to also pay more for car upkeep and fuel. You will probably also have to buy another car in a shorter period of time and will therefore own more in your lifetime, another waste of resources.

    Does anyone see the vicious cycle here? Do we also see how buying organic (when that organic has artificially inflated margins—and trust me, they’re artificially high) can undermine the whole reason for buying organic?

    Also, isn’t there something to be said for raising things yourself? If a number of people living in community were available, you could lower the cost of owning cattle to the point that it would be far more cost effective than buying mil and beef, too.

    Just something to think about.

  4. Dan, I can hardly believe it – you mentioned the magic word “permaculture” which tags you as part of a growing movement that really does have the potential to deliver sustainable solutions – IMHO.

    When John Seymour published “The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency” in 1975, he outlined traditional methods that had been tested over centuries that included crop rotation. He advocated that it was possible to support a family on five acres. However, permaculture, introduces concepts that defy traditional agriculture and have the potential for greater productivity for less work and less interference with nature.

    When I speak with others of living in community and being self sufficient in the hope that there will be a spark of mutual recognition, I easily forget that it is permaculture principles that handed me a vivid and viable vision for working the land. And while they are thinking “hoeing potatoes” I am thinking “forest gardening”, while they are not liking the idea of “back breaking ploughing” I am thinking “minimum tillage”. If they are picturing “hours spent weeding” I am seeing a great harvest of dandelions, plantain, coltsfoot, milk thistle and other useful “weeds”.

    It sounds as if you are many years and heartaches ahead of me in your dream and it sounds like there has been plenty of blood sweat and tears – literally; but hang in there and I shall be praying and trying to not to get covetous about the progress you have made so far.

    We recently joined a subscrition scheme for organic produce. It is very reasonably priced and the sack of seasonal veg is delivered once a week. However, some of it comes from quite far afield and the energy spent bringing it to our door probably cancels out all the good of the organic-ness of it. In truth, I think that the only way to take control of our foods is to be involved in every stage of their production.

    I will mourn with you the apparent truth that very few Christians have been turned on to the importance of this. If you need to keep the dream afloat I would recommend tucking into some of the stuff the bruderhof publish. I am currently reading J. Heinrich Arnold’s biography. His father told him, “the goal of your training as a farmer is not merely to prepare you for your own future. All the movements of the past decades will one day converge in a radical awakening of the masses that leads the way to social justice and God’s unity. And so we prepare ourselves to set our little community in the midst of this mighty awakening. We cannot cling to a time when, as now, we are a small circle of people who know eachother intimately. We must be ready to be consumed in a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit.” The broad horizon of his vision was a key to the bruderhof’s continuing success. I think we are more likely to need this knowledge in the face of persecution and economic exclusion but it is having a God given prophetic context for both the inspiration and the perspiration that is so essential.

    Apologies for the length of the comment. I am always wanting to leave comments on your blog but rarely seen to have the time – I am on holiday and at leisure at the moment. All the best with your writing and when you re-emerge, I am sure we can correspond at greater length.

  5. Seymour,

    Yeah, I think about all this a lot. I even commented on the updated version of John Seymour’s book at Amazon, so it’s a very small world, eh?

    The biggest problem my wife and I have had is that it costs gobs of money to switch from normal methods to permatculture methods if you are starting from scratch. Much more than we thought. So we are going very slowly.

    We’re trying to co-plant our fruit orchard using guild methods. We also bought highly disease-resistant fruit varieties in order to keep our need to spray (even organically) down. Despite the fact that all the hardwood cherry trees on our property have always been safe, our little fruiting cherry trees we planted in May got eaten to pieces by Japanese beetles in a single day while we were out on the town. So we put up the traps, did the cheesecloth coverings, and even resorted to a powdering of pyrethrins (as natural an insecticide as is possible.) Co-planting and all the permaculture methods in the world won’t help when you’re fighting an invasion of non-native species that when massed can destroy an entire tree in a day. Will do the milky spore thing this fall, but the cost is exhorbitant for the amount of land we have. I could always sell a kidney, I guess.

    Still, I discovered that after a while trees adapt to getting hit hard by the beetles and they produce some chemical as a result that keeps bugs away. I think the very act of damaging the leaves brings on this form of natural response. I’d never noticed this before this year. That’s the kind of thing a natural farmer anticipates that a regular farmer does not. Will put that into play for us next year.

    It’s hard to be a permaculture farmer when you start from nothing. We’ll get there eventually, though. My wife is pretty tough about the whole thing and has read every permaculture book there is (while persuading me to do the same.) The farmers around us think we’re nuts, but we’ll carry on as the freaky organic Christians. We’ve always been the square pegs—what can I say?

  6. Kent Runge

    My wife and I own 26.02 acres of Minnesota woods situated within 20 miles of some of the most productive farmland in the world, the Red River Valley. We are surrounded by family farms, yet our land, due to rocks, hills, shade and soil is pretty much untillable; which is ok with me as I’d rather do what I do all day at work than farm.

    It occurs to me that though it was homesteaded in 1882, my land has never been put to any agricultural use than grazing, it’s always been deemed ‘not worthwhile’ for any other use. Our acreage contributes mightely to the world’s tree population. Does the formula you quoted take into account the world’s untillable acreage and the need we have for forests?

  7. Kent,

    Your land would be considered usable by the figures I give because people still need wood for houses, furniture, and paper. In fact, the 5.7 acres I quote assumes that some of that land is occupied by trees for that very purpose.

    No land is useless. Even the untillable land yields minerals and metals. Deserts are more than countered by aquaculture and folks who live offshore.

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