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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

One finger on Arrakis
December 14, 2008 - 7:06pm

When I was a lad, I read a piece in a magazine, a book, I don't remember where. It talked about how small inputs at points of great leverage could overwhelm much larger efforts. Actually, it talked about how, if you grasp a broom by the corn-straw end and try to guide the tip of the broomstick into the opening of an empty jar, it's easy to do. Unless someone standing near the jar decides to stop you -- which they can easily do using only a single finger. (Don't prevent the broom tip from moving forward, just prevent it from moving forward in a straight line.) What the writer said was true. I know. My brother and I tried it, repeatedly. We only broke one empty Peter Pan peanut butter jar. No harm was done to the broom. That simple lesson/image/metaphor has stayed with me a long time.

A similar message came from reading Frank Herbert's science fiction classic, Dune. I'm not sure which character delivered the message, maybe Stilgar the Fremen, but the wording was something like "he controls a thing who can destroy it." The more exposed a process or system is, the easier it is to disrupt -- the less certain any useful outcome is of fruition. If a number of specific examples haven't popped into your head by now, your newspaper subscription must have lapsed.

One recent example jumped out at me from the pages of my newspaper(s) last week. The process or system in question is the one which creates environmental regulations, and the disruptor in question was US industrialized agriculture. Somebody at the American Farm Bureau Federation got wind of an EPA document on possible uses of the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. And the rather lengthy EPA report contained the two words "raising livestock". Two words. One instance. No proposed regulations. No drafts. No suggestions. No cost numbers. No nothing.

The result? Days and days of press coverage about just how many farmers and ranchers could be driven to bankruptcy by EPA's possible "cattle tax". Where did the idea of a "cattle tax" come from? The American Farm Bureau Federation. Where did the estimated amount of that tax come from? AFBF. Where did the estimates of numbers of likely bankruptcies come from? You got it. Who ran with the story? Just about every newspaper and TV station in cattle country, which is pretty much everywhere outside the major metropolitan areas. What politicians are climbing on board the wagon? State and county agriculture commissioners. Byron Dorgan. Chuck Schumer. Lots of folks.

Now, in a rational universe, all the EPA would have to do is to point out that no "cattle tax" has been proposed and that, certainly under the current Administrator, none is likely to. What will happen under the new administration is yet unknown, but they certainly don't have any proposals on the table yet. But the purpose of the American Farm Bureau Federation (full disclosure -- I've first became a member of my local Farm Bureau over 25 years ago) isn't to operate in a rational universe. It's to jump into the process at the point of maximum leverage -- really, before the process has even started, and get people's adrenaline levels so high, so quickly, that nothing approaching rational conversation is even possible.

Would putting a cost on methane emissions from animal husbandry put some ranchers and farmers out of business? Possibly, depending on their current business models and how (un)willing they were to change. But a well-designed cost structure would actually help far more farmers than it would hurt, because it would mitigate against the factory-scale livestock operations which increasingly dominate both beef and dairy production. The fact of the matter is that pasture-fed cattle emit far less methane than confined cattle overfed on grain and antibiotics. A cost burden which reflected typical GHG emissions based on mode of production would favor small, relatively labor-intensive family farms, not the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and similar factory-scale farms which are currently the low-cost producers.

Does the USA want to do something which would truly help family farmers and the environment, at the expense of the biggest agribusinesses? Maybe, or maybe not. But that's not a conversation those great big agribusinesses (and their mouthpieces at AFBF) want us, as a nation, to have.

More to the point, that's not the type of conversation the currently dominant players in any industry want us, as a nation, to have. Not automobiles, not health care/finance, not construction, not consumer goods. They know that all they have to do is to stand near the opening of that empty peanut butter jar, with one finger at the ready. And ready they are.

Back on campus, "how things could be different" is a conversation similarly easy to disrupt. The dominant players go forward on the tacit assumption that things are the way they are because that's the best possible way for them to be. Projects come and go, but the way projects get approved is forever. Budgets, and budgeting systems, may change over time, but the manner in which budgets are analyzed and approved isn't up for discussion. And unfortunately, a global economic recession just has the effect of making folks even less amenable to systemic change.

It's not easy being green.


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