Friday, April 14, 2017

Kansas City Progress, Oklahoma Naivete, and Iowa Short-Sightedness

“Everything's up to date in Kansas City,” marveled cowboy Will Parker in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!, set in 1906 and debuting on Broadway in 1943.

“They gone about as fer as they can go
They went an' built a skyscraper seven stories high
About as high as a buildin' orta grow.”

My guess is that audiences found that prediction as comically nonsensical in 1943 as we do today.  With two skyscrapers planned for downtown Des Moines that rise 30 stories and more, a 7-story “skyscraper” sounds more like a bungalow.  Never mind that the tallest building in the country -- the 104-story One World Trade Center in New York -- is only the 6th tallest in the world.  

That’s the problem with the present tense, of course:  we don’t know what we don’t know.  In 1906 a 7-story building really sounded like something.  We make judgments and assumptions based on wisdom accumulated to that point – what else, after all, do we have? – but only fools presume that that’s all there is. 

I found myself humming that classic piece of musical naiveté while reading the newspaper’s reporting on the Iowa State Legislature’s budget recommendation that would effectively eliminate the 30-year old Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture housed at Iowa State University.  Named after Iowa native Aldo Leopold, an internationally revered conservationist, ecologist, and educator who championed the need for development of a “land ethic”, the Center’s mission has been “to identify and develop new ways to farm profitably while conserving natural resources as well as reducing negative environmental and social impacts.”  In its three decades of work, the Center has sponsored research, trials, educational efforts, and worked with farmers to enrich both their work and the land they cultivate. Much of the conservation progress in Iowa that has been realized in recent years can be traced to the Center's research and educational efforts -- work that, by the Center's own assessment, is still in its infancy.

In announcing the budget proposal, however, Rep. Cecil Dolecheck (Mt. Ayr) mused that  “…the center’s mission of researching methods of sustainable agriculture appears to have been achieved.” 

Yep, they gone about as fer as they can go.

“Research on sustainable agriculture,” Dolecheck went on to observe, “can continue at ISU, but it can be done through the College of Agriculture.” (Des Moines Register, April 12, 2017)

Given that land grant institutions like Iowa State have largely become wholly owned subsidiaries of “big ag”, focused more centrally on corporate profitability than soil sustainability, that option offers thin encouragement.  Meanwhile, the land continues to erode, the soil continues to deteriorate, waterways are increasingly unswimmable and toxic to wildlife, and farmers, for all their available tools and technologies, earn less and less for their labors while spending more and more for the privilege. 

But apparently research on sustainability has gone about as far as it can go.  Perhaps next the Legislature will impose a 7-story cap on new building construction because everybody knows that’s “About as high as a buildin' orta grow.”

One thing is almost certainly true in this sad saga of environmental ignorance and disregard.  As we accelerate our disinterest in matters of sustainability, the Leopold Center’s mission toward that end will indeed grow obsolete.  “Sustainability” will no longer be the relevant need.

“Regenerativity” will, of necessity, have urgently taken its place.