[Editor's note: This is a transcription of the author's June 28, 2008 presentation at the Surviving Climate Change roundtable.]
I played hooky this afternoon. I wanted to see the Mississippi River, at the highest it's been since 1993. As I looked, my mind went to 1803 at the time of the Louisiana Purchase and wondered, if Thomas Jefferson had been standing where I was standing, in his time, what the light reflecting off the rushing turbulent river would be. Would it be as dark as it is now due to soil? The river may have been as high, but because the Mississippi was draining native prairie and forestland, nutrients headed toward the Gulf in 1803 would soon be replaced by nosing roots of the prairie and the forest. Recharge of the ecological capital from the rocks and the subsoil to sponsor growth would be more or less complete. Not so today.
We live on the most fortunate of all continents. Pleistocene ice from the Canadian shield scraped and ground and pulverized rocks to give us much of Minnesota, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska. We have the richest soils in the world and the most favorable moisture regimes.
But, our good land has suffered for our ignorance. Wendell Berry once said that as we came across the continent, cutting the forests and plowing the prairies, we've never known what we were doing because we have never known what we were undoing. It has suffered from institutional causes, as well.
Dan Luten, professor at UC-Berkeley, acknowledged the role of our institutions as derivatives of our early settlement when he noted that we came as a poor people to a seemingly empty land that was rich in resources. We built our institutions for that perception of reality: poor people, empty land, rich. Our educational institutions, our political institutions, our economic institutions, even our religious institutions, are largely predicated on that idea. Well, now we've become rich people in an increasingly poor land that is filling up. The institutions don't hold. We patch them up here and there and as Professor Luten would have said, "give them a lick and a promise. But they don't hold."
Watch the Mississippi today under the Arch, the symbolic gateway to the west, with all those nutrients headed for New Orleans and the Gulf, and we are watching the stuff of which we are made headed toward a watery grave. The "stuff of which I speak is the elements, the building blocks of nature represented on the periodic chart in our science classrooms. In the upper third of that chart are 20-some elements that go into organisms. Four are carried in the atmospheric commons: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen.
The rest are in the soil, but vulnerable to the forces of wind and rain. The speed of their loss is a recent phenomenon in the Americas, but not on a global scale. It began about 10,000 years ago at the eastern end of the Mediterranean where the greatest...