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The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

The Road to Resilience

I’ve referred before to the Sorcerer’s Apprentice to characterize our unrelenting belief that we understand how the world works and we can alter portions of it without any adverse consequences.  The story goes that while the sorcerer is away, the sorcerer’s apprentice decides to dabble in a bit of magic to make his chores a little easier.  He knows enough to engage some magic but does not know how to stop it, and the situation quickly gets completely out of control.  
The magic we think we understand is the web of life on this planet.  We continually underestimate both the magnitude of its forces and the fine balance and interplay of all of its parts.  Changing one part to our advantage often results in unintended consequences, sometimes horrific ones.  In trying to correct those, we only throw everything even more out of whack.

Nowhere can we find a better example of this than in the biotech industry as applied to agriculture.  Companies like Monsanto and Dow Chemical continue to distinguish themselves in the art of tweaking nature a little bit here and there and throwing everything awry in the process.  They never seem to get it that nature will counter their moves, and usually not in a way that is beneficial for anybody.

A case in point is the recent introduction by Monsanto of yet another product to make growing soybeans immensely profitable and trouble free.  You may remember that Monsanto invented Roundup, whose active ingredient is glyphosate.  It is a systemic poison that kills any plant it touches.   Then they created glyphosate resistant strains of various food crops, in particular corn and soybeans.  Now they could soak corn and soybean fields in glyphosate, leaving only the resistant food crop.

As nature responds in such cases, weeds became resistant to glyphosate and larger and larger amounts are needed to defeat them.  In answer, Monsanto developed a strain of soybeans that is resistant to Dicamba, a more lethal herbicide that has been used for many years, but not on soybeans, as it is toxic to them.  Dicamba is broadly toxic, vaporizes easily and can contaminate neighboring fields.

In an attempt to mitigate against unintended  contamination of neighboring fields, Monsanto created a new version of Dicamba that does not vaporize as easily.  The new Dicamba, designed to be used with the Dicamba resistant soybeans, hadn’t yet been approved by the EPA, but Monsanto decided to market the seeds anyway because they were supposed to have higher yields.  The farmers were cautioned not to use the currently available Dicamba, but to wait for the new product.   

Many farmers whose soybeans fields were overgrown with glyphosate resistant weeds clamored to buy the new Dicamba-resistant seed, assuming that the new, improved Dicamba would become available when they needed it.  As it turns out, the new Dicamba was not approved during that growing season, and many desperate farmers resorted to using the old Dicamba so as not to lose another crop.  

Farmers that were using the old soybeans not resistant to Dicamba found their crops withering from Dicamba contamination.  Fines for using the illegal herbicide are often in the $1,000 range, not much of a disincentive for farmers with thousands of acres.  Meanwhile, farmers were fighting with their neighbors over Dicamba damage and were angry that they would be forced to buy the Dicamba-resistant seed to protect themselves.   

Meanwhile, researchers found that weeds could become resistant to Dicamba in as little as three generations.  Even as it becomes apparent that the new Dicamba and the Dicamba resistant seed will have only limited usefulness, the more toxic Dicamba is contaminating wild flora as well.  Among the first effects to be noted was that beekeepers were finding their honey production dropping by 30%.  Perhaps in a few years annual plants will become resistant, but perennial plants can’t adapt so quickly.  Nor does anybody know what the ultimate affects will be for animal life, including ours.

In the fable, the sorcerer returns and makes everything right.  It seems to me that our sorcerer must be nature itself.  If so, I don’t think we can expect it to act exclusively on our behalf.  In fact, I don’t think we can expect it to act on our behalf at all.  If we are left to our own devices and we don’t really understand very well how nature works, what do we do?  It’s completely understandable that so many of us are now counting on a merciful God to step in and save us.

We know some things not to do.   We know we can’t control nature.  We know that we can’t keep life from changing.  We know that introducing exotic chemicals makes life chaotic and unpredictable.  We know that corporate capitalism is fatally shortsighted and incapable of making fundamental changes even when disaster is in sight.  That’s why we progressives continue to press for a government that represents our better and wiser nature.  Instead, we have a government that is controlled by the very corporate capitalism that is killing us.   We can turn this around, but we need to care enough to get off our butts and get it done.

Clarification:  In the last column, I mentioned that PSE provides 9% of its power from gas plants that it owns.  I should have mentioned that the total portion of power they deliver that is produced by gas plants is 29%.   What you need to know is that our PSE power comes from more or less equal portions of coal, gas, and renewables.