Last week was tough in a way that I hadn’t expected.
I had two events to go to: the first, a climate change conference put on by our state’s climate change commission, and the second, an agricultural bank board meeting. It was unexpectedly tough to think about the world in such disparate ways within a few days of each other. Tough to reconcile their differences, or not to reconcile but bear those differences when they were not reconcilable. That was the hardest part and it took a toll on me.
There were two different visions of the world that undergirded these two different meetings, two different ideological positions that were the common, unspoken background of most of the attendees at each meeting, and two different set of blindspots.
Hawaii has some of the most ambitious climate change and green energy goals in the US, which, admittedly, is not saying too much. The average person in Hawaii is probably more environmentally conscious than the US average. Even the most self-interested citizen here cares about the cleanliness of their favorite beach or other recreational area, and that translates into a generally high level of sympathy for environmentalism. Two-thirds of the citizens of Hawaii are concerned about climate change, said one speaker at the conference. The climate change conference, entitled Ha O Ke Kai (The Breath of the Sea) was attended by 150 of the most ardent climate change advocates in the state. It was a small conference, a single day, one keynote speaker and three panel discussions. I was there because after putting forward a proposal to create a climate change commission at the county government level, as well as mandating green house gas reduction goals by the county departments – which was, incidentally, voted down by my fellow commissioners – I realized that I didn’t understand climate change policy at all, and thought I might learn at least a little bit at this conveniently timed climate change conference. The focus of the conference turned out to be on greening transportation – by improving public transportation and discouraging single occupant vehicles – and on mitigating the impacts of climate change, particularly sea-level rise. These are both high priorities for Hawaii as traffic in Honolulu is hellish and sea-level rise will have a high economic impact on the coastal hotels that are the foundation of our tourism industry. The blind spot was agriculture, which was only mentioned in passing a few times. Agriculture in Hawaii struggles to exist, but it is fundamentally important to any consideration of climate change, I would argue. Tourism and commuting are not essential to civilization. Eating is. If we can’t figure out how to de-carbonize agriculture nothing else that we build upon that foundation is going to work in the long-term. Agriculture and human civilization are essentially the same thing.
Which made it difficult to go from the climate change conference to agricultural bank board meeting, where climate change is not mentioned and not considered because it is not mentioned. Only money matters there. The men in that board room are the biggest and brightest in American agribusiness, operating thousands of acres of corn, soybeans, sorghum, and wheat if they are from the Mid-West or if they are from the great agricultural valleys of California they grow thousands of acres of tomatoes, onions, lettuce, artichokes or wine-grapes, almonds, walnuts, figs or dairies or feed yards with thousands of head of cattle. One of the farmers told me about how he is working on incorporating biochar into his business model so as to improve the soil health of his farmland in Kansas. On the other hand he showed me on his phone the land that he owned in Brazil which he had “improved” by clearing and planting in eucalyptus. It was not, I think, the actual Amazonian rainforest but close enough to make me queasy talking with him, queasy mostly in how it highlighted my own complicity, which most days I try not to look at too hard.
So there’s the rub – the climate change advocates do not understand agriculture and the agri-businessmen do not understand climate change and what it may mean for all of us. It is as much a willful lack of understanding based on the current ideological/political fault-lines in the Anglo-phone nations at present (excepting, possibly, NZ) as it is any lack of information. If we lived in a rational world it should be the farmers and ranchers who are the biggest advocates for climate change action because we have the MOST to lose in the extreme weather that is predicted to be coming our way.
I don’t know how we bridge the fault-lines. All I know is that it gave me whiplash to have lived in two such disparate paradigms within a few days.