Editor’s Notebook: Gratitude, mayhem and deals with the devil

April 30, 2009

Greta Belanger deJong

Magic vs. sleight of hand.

by Greta Belanger deJong

Last night I read the essay by biologist Sandra Steingraber that appears in the May/June issue of Orion [www.orionmagazine.org]. She explores the connection between our economic and ecological crises. From the Salt Lake organization Physicians for Clean Air I had also heard this fascinating, if horrifying, statistic she cites: “In umbilical cord blood alone, 287 different chemicals have been identified, including pesticides, stain removers, wood preservatives, mercury, and flame retardants.” Sandra predicts chemical reform will be the cornerstone for a new enviro human rights movement.

In this issue of CATALYST, Chip Ward, too, explores how ecological ignorance and economic collapse are interwoven (“Too Big to Fail,” p.12). His take is that, in nature-which, after all, we are a part of-big is bound to fail, and that’s not so bad. It’s how we respond: It’s all about regeneration, not recovery.

I was raised a good Catholic, which everyone seems to agree includes living with a measure of guilt-something that, apparently, we share with Jews. The joke was that Jews just felt guilty; Catholics had the good sense to at least vaguely remember something to feel guilty about. Perhaps this is why I am inclined, when things run amuck, to try to remember what the heck I did to bring this on.

The things we love often involve mayhem at some level. The very solutions we think of as positive sometimes have a troubling backstory. This doesn’t mean we don’t move ahead, that we don’t make decisions we know might cause harm to someone, somewhere. Were that the case, we would barely be able to breathe, to say nothing of drive a car or dine out. Just like the news blackout on the return of corpses from the war in Iraq, we realize that it’s demoralizing to think certain thoughts. And so we banish them from the headlines of our minds.

Often-but not always-this is good mental hygiene.

And so I find myself musing on how to connect the dots between the things we progressive, compassionate types get enthused about, and the rest of the story. For instance, at first blush, biofuels sounds like an innocent, even noble idea-to essentially “grow” our own fuel, instead playing hide and seek with long-dead dinosaurs. I admit that from the moment I heard about biofuels, I knew it was not a good answer. But that’s because in an alternate life I would have been a soil biologist; I knew how the biofuels story would unfold: Corn, most commonly used, is a “heavy feeder.” It seriously depletes and can virtually destroy the soil. Think of a malnourished mom with a two-year-old at each tit.

You apply petrochemically derived fertilizers, but that eventually makes the problem worse. The soil becomes like a junkie, needing more, and more, each year to be able to sustain the rush of the crop.

So, the answer is to use organic fertilizer, right? Great Salt Lake Mineral produces certified organic potassium sulfate, for which-thanks to biofuels-there’s a booming demand. To serve their customers, Great Salt Lake Minerals needs to expand. They are currently angling for 45,000 more acres of solar evaporation ponds on the shores of the Great Salt Lake… in what’s currently nesting habitat for birds on the international flyway.

Approaching this thought from another direction: I might have objected to Kennecott Copper’s underground plume of pollution which fanned under West Jordan, polluting wells with heavy metals-a fact the company knew, and kept under wraps, for years. At the same time, I probably couldn’t begin to live my life as I know it without the benefit of copper that delivers water to my sink, enables the flow of electricity, and enriches my life with music, conversation and information via various electronic devices.

Do I really want to know what ecological havoc has been wrought by the manufacture of my must-have iPhone?

Wood preservative, stain remover, flame retardants. Somewhere in the past 75 years we made a deal with the devil: Wood that could be made not to rot-stains that would lift out-buildings and clothes that would not catch on fire: These are just a few of the million acts of magic we bought, hook, line and sinker, no questions asked. The chemical residues in each umbilical cord are the products of a century of our best minds at work: intellectual and creative genius, cleverness unbounded.

I could say, “And now the devil’s coming for us.” As it is so often when bargaining with the devil, one has no idea what’s being given up till it’s too late. I somehow persist in believing everyone has my best interests at heart, even though there’s evidence to the contrary. It’s the way I like to live, though. Perhaps as emotionally sustainable but more practical would be the proverb: Trust in Allah but tie your camel.

“They” gave us what they thought we wanted. They did not tell us the price. Sometimes they did not know it themselves. Sometimes they did, but likely trusted that scientific and entrepreneurial genius to rise up again and, like a cartoon character, save the day.

And so there is the hope, the expectation, for the magical savior, scientific or biblical-choose your paradigm.

In her “Metaphors” column this month (page 50) Suzanne Wagner offers this: What seems like a magical shift is actually a radical change in your own conscious awareness.

I do believe my behavior “brings things on,” and that it’s important to know the backstory, in part because it is an honoring, a deeper appreciation, of the gifts I daily receive. It’s also empowering to consider that conscious awareness can bring us to a place where we see solutions that satisfy our soul.

When that happens, I hope I still get to keep my iPhone.

Greta Belanger deJong is editor and publisher of CATALYST. Comments welcome. greta@catalystmagazine.net.