went to the Prairie Festival in September 2019. This year’s festival is
virtual, due to the pandemic.
Prairie Festival is an annual celebration at The Land Institute in Salina,
Kansas. It is part scientific meeting, part artistic
celebration, and part barn dance. The scientific presentations, which drew
experts from all over the country, spoke to a crowd in a big barn with sides
open to the weather, which is often nice just before and after the festival but
usually tempestuous during it. I sat on the dirt floor to listen to the
Land Institute has the modest task of saving the world’s agriculture. The
standard farming practice of much of the world—planting crops that only live
one year, and which require megatonnage of fertilizers and pesticides—have long
been causing immense soil erosion and pollution. The Land Institute scientists
are busily making discoveries that can allow a transition to an agricultural
system that uses perennial crops and in which crop biodiversity can reduce or
even eliminate the need for chemicals. These are not just theoretical
questions. They have also bred perennial edible grains such as kernza that have market
value, that is, unless the big corporations that make money from wheat and corn
bury it under layers of misinformation.
Land Institute also knows that you cannot have an agricultural transition
without having cultural support. The hundreds of attendees loved being there.
We carry the good news of ecological agriculture back to our homes and lives (I
teach university students about it). Hence the barn dance: this event has to be
of the best scientists and environmental activists were there. Amory Lovins,
founder and director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, presented
mounds of facts (all of them easy to understand, but there were lots of them)
that the transition to sustainable energy, leaving behind fossils fuels, is not
only possible but profitable, and not someday but right now. If left to
themselves without political pressure from the Trump worshipers, citizens and
utilities alike will favor energy efficiency. Another major speaker was BillMcKibben. The “minor”
speakers were also amazing, such as the quietly confident
evolutionary-scientist-turned-environmental-educator Ana Luz Porzecanski from the American Museum of Natural History.
I cannot imagine that their effort will ultimately be successful. I know they
will continue their efforts and enthusiasm—for the alternative is for us to
give up and die.
are some of the things that make me less confident than ever that the efforts
of sincere and intelligent environmentalists will change the world enough and
in time to avert disaster.
have always told my students that global warming itself is not going to kill
anyone. It is the consequences, such as agricultural collapse, that are
dangerous. I tell them that we simply cannot afford global warming. But Bill
McKibben told about a place in the Middle East where the daytime temperaturesexceeded 129 degrees F in 2019. At this
temperature, a human will die in three hours. (Be warned that every news outlet
that covers this story requires you to enable ads or in some cases to subscribe
before you can even look at their website.)
many of the attendees, I came away from the Festival with an action plan: to
continue doing what I already do, which is to teach undergraduates about the
problem. It fits right into general biology and general botany; indeed, it
would be unethical to omit it. But for many of the others? I glanced over at a
woman’s notes. There was very little specific information on them. She wrote,
“Need dramatic change.” (She wrote Δ instead of change. In which case, maybe
she was a science teacher who will make a difference.) “Must think in new
ways,” she also wrote.
McKibben spends much of his time protesting in ways that get him arrested. He
is a professional jailbird in this sense. This includes protests against Trump
anti-immigration policies. Why? Because many of these immigrants are
environmental refugees, for example from drought-blighted farms in Honduras. I
teach my students that there will soon be environmental refugees; India already
has fences up to keep flooded Bangladeshis out when, someday, they lose most of
their farmland. But apparently it isn’t someday; it’s now. But it is fortunate
that McKibben gets arrested up in the Northeast, because if he protested in
Texas, he would be guilty of a felony and face up to ten years in prison. This law took effect on September 1, 2019.
have also always assumed that correct information about what is going on in the
world is readily available. But I have recently found that many legitimate news
sites require you to either enable advertisements to be downloaded to your
computer, or that you subscribe. Perhaps the only news you can get is
(overwhelmingly) from Trump-worshiper websites or (much less) from flaming
liberal websites. Where is this wonderland of information promised by that
I leave a Prairie Festival, I feel good that so many sincere and intelligent
people are at work on these vital problems. But as I drove back down into
Oklahoma, and saw the hundreds of pieces of garbage on the roadside, my
enthusiasm was drowned in the reality of the utter self-centeredness of the
majority of people.