Tuesday, February 23, 2016

We can't protect the environment one silo at a time!

Many, many years ago, before I ended up in Minnesota, I was the director of the Boston region's "Areawide Water Quality Management Plan." It focused on the relationship between land use and water quality for nine river basins. Because I was smart enough and lucky enough to hire a young engineer who didn't think like most engineers I had met, we developed our work program on the basis of multi-purpose, multi-objective programming, getting folks out of their traditional silos.

silos are for storage, not problem-solving
silos are for storage, not problem-solving
Photo by J. Harrington

Thaws the period of the first Earth Day, when Limits to Growth had just been published and the Congress passed the Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, so that:
"Under authority contained in the 1972 legislation, the EPA had primary responsibility for implementing the ambitious and optimistic goals of ensuring that all waters of the United States be "fishable" and "swimmable" by 1983, 10 years after the act's passage.

The 1972 Clean Water Act also set as a lofty goal the "zero discharge" of pollutants into the nation's waters by 1985. Congress passed related legislation also at this time to ensure that its intent to cover all waters of the United States was clear."
Two generations or so later, we haven't come close to attaining that Act's goals, (nor those go the 1949 Housing Act for that matter) but we have learned some things along the way. We've also encountered a whole other, often related, set of issues associated with climate change, driven by global warming. Some of the solutions to the more recently discovered problems can also help us get cleaner water if we go about it right. Here's one example from the Spring 2016 issue of Yes! magazine:
"The food system is a big energy consumer, with fossil fuels used in the manufacture of fertilizers, food processing, and transportation. We could reduce a lot of that fuel consumption by increasing the market share of organic local foods. While we’re at it, we could begin sequestering enormous amounts of atmospheric carbon in topsoil by promoting farming practices that build soil rather than deplete it—as is being done, for example, in the Marin Carbon Project."
That same issue has a story about perennial grains, another way to improve agricultural water quality and feed our population of provide stock for bioenergy. We're going to need to do more systems thinking across multiple systems to make all this work well. Single purpose, single solution thinking won't get us where we need to go. At the same time we're sequestering carbon, we're reducing our use of fertilizers, improving our local food system and farm economy and greater Minnesota communities. More producers equals more local shoppers. If we allow each sector to think selfishly only about itself and it's good, we'll fail. If you don't want to take my work for it, go read some of Peter Senge's writing on systems and learning organizations. Minnesota can become a learning government if enough of us help and (re)learn to talk to each other instead of shouting at each other. We've built some systems that cause smart people to do dumb things. We need to change those systems.

Enriching the Earth

To enrich the earth I have sowed clover and grass
to grow and die. I have plowed in the seeds
of winter grains and of various legumes,
their growth to be plowed in to enrich the earth.
I have stirred into the ground the offal
and the decay of the growth of past seasons
and so mended the earth and made its yield increase.
All this serves the dark. I am slowly falling
into the fund of things. And yet to serve the earth,
not knowing what I serve, gives a wideness
and a delight to the air, and my days
do not wholly pass. It is the mind's service,
for when the will fails so do the hands
and one lives at the expense of life.
After death, willing or not, the body serves,
entering the earth. And so what was heaviest
and most mute is at last raised up into song.  

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Please be kind to each other while you can.