Sciencewomen

Mommy Monday: My Child’s Planet

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This weekend, Minnow, Fish, Princess Pup and I went for a hike. We didn’t go far. Just enough that we got away from the city and to a spot where we could look out over a lake and see the trees turning colors on the far shore.

I’ve often seen environmental issues framed in terms of our responsibility to future generations. The idea is as old as the Iroquois: “”In every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation…” and it is the driving force behind the idea of sustainability. Basically, I like to think of it is as a long-period version of the golden rule: “do unto others…”

In abstract, I’ve understood this principle for years. You don’t litter, because then the next hiker has to see your trash (and an animal could get its head stuck in your empty can). You don’t wantonly clearcut because it takes decades (at least) for the habitat to reform. You don’t dump sewage in a river because someone always lives downstream.

But having a daughter has brought the idea of intergenerational responsibility into much sharper focus for me.

It no longer means keeping things clean for some unknown person to enjoy. It means making sure that my daughter has clean water to drink and clean air to breathe. It means making sure that there is enough agricultural land and enough fertile soil so that my daughter can eat healthy foods – and so can every other person on the planet. It means that protecting the last remaining patches of wild lands so that someday she too can climb to the top of a ridge and view a landscape without human imprint. It means trying desperately to keep the climate from going on rampage.

Having a child hasn’t changed the day-to-day business of being a good environmental steward. I still reuse, reduce, recycle, combine errands into a single outing, buy local and organic, refuse to use pesticides or noxious cleaners, and yearn for a shorter commute, less polluting car, or realistic public transport. I still try to educate my students, neighbors, and acquaintances about how and why we are inseparable from the environment around us.

What has changed is that when I wonder if my little actions are worth it – whether they make a difference – my daughter’s smile and laughter come unbidden into my head. Maybe it’s selfish to want to protect the environment so that my daughter can lead a long, healthy, and happy life, but then again, it is the most primal motivation of all…wanting your progeny to succeed. And in this case, the ends (a little bit less environmental degradation) really do justify the means.

And so I teach, and I recycle, and I blog, and I hope that if enough other people join me in those activities, that our daughters, and our daughters’ daughters, and so on for seven generations will be able to live long, healthy, happy lives, and that they too will be able to walk through the woods, look out over a lake and watch the colors on a mild autumn day.

Comments

  1. #1 Field Notes
    October 15, 2007

    I use Seventh Generation products (love the lavender laundry detergent & dish soap) and never knew the origin of the name. Thanks for enlightenment :-) I too try my best to be a good environmental steward.

    After hearing numerous people complain about how Energy Star appliances cost too much, yesterday Mr. Field Notes (sleyed.blogspot.com) wrote about how it IS possible to get good Energy Star rated appliances without spending a lot.

  2. #2 Jane
    October 15, 2007

    Amen. Thanks for such a thoughtful post!

  3. #3 Mike
    October 16, 2007

    You may want to rethink blind allegiance to organic, if environmental concerns are your motivation. Depending upon methods, organic soybeans and organic beef may both have larger carbon footprints than the non organic varieties. Remember the designation organic is not about improving environmental sustainability, but rather rejecting certain technologies.

  4. #4 ScienceWoman
    October 16, 2007

    Mike: Hmmm…I hadn’t heard that. I’ll have to do some more investigating. Even if true, there are still a lot of reasons for choosing organic (and especially local organic) produce. I’m not a big fan of pesticide buildup in my body (or that of my baby), eutrophication of streams from excess fertilizer runoff, drift of pesticide and herbicide sprays onto other lands, and besides organic produce is often fresher (and tastier) than the conventional alternative.

  5. #5 Mike
    October 17, 2007

    I will provide more details about the two examples.
    Soybeans: organic production requires repeated tillage to get rid of the weeds. Some friends of ours have an organic soybean farm in the midwest (about 500 acres). The till 3 times prior to planting, they then plant, and then till up to 8 times after planting to keep the weeds at bay. This results in multiple passes over the fields and the use of larger tractors which uses more diesel fuel. In contrast, prior to switching to organic, they no-tilled RoundUp Ready soybeans. This only requires two passes on the field with a smaller tractor. The no-till option increase carbon sequestering and the fewer passes with a smaller tractor result in less carbon. In terms of carbon footprints, organic versus conventional soybeans are not even close. Envrionmentally, Roundup is relatively safe herbicide as it is quickly broken down by microbes in the soil, yet is effective at killing weeds.

    Beef: Organic beef prevents the use of ionophores. These are compounds which shift the ratio of microorganisms in the rumen. This shift reduces the amount of methane produced and reduces the amount grain needed to make a pound of beef. Both of these are reduced by about 15-20%. This alone makes organic beef have a larger carbon footprint and a greater source of greenhouse gases.

  6. #6 soil mama
    October 17, 2007

    Mike- I understand your point about the footprint of the soybean farming and the context of fuel usage on the farm. But there are parts of the equation you are missing: what about all the energy used to produce the chemicals? what about the long term effects of having the pesticides in the envoronment? often times MORE pesticides are used on roundup ready crops since they can spray the WHOLE field rather than just the edges (since they don’t have to worry about killing the crop). not to mention the inorganic sources of N are very energy demanding to produce.

    I am not saying that organic or “natural” is always the best, but I don’t think there is always a “best.” each person needs to consider their options and if possible know where their food is coming from. as for Beef, it would be hard to argue that there is a better option than grass fed beef lovingly raised by my sister :) Not Organic, no ionophores but still the best option I could think of!

    sciencewoman- great post! I feel very similar now that I’ve got my little dirt baby.

  7. #7 Mike
    October 17, 2007

    As far as I know, soybeans, organic or conventional, do not need any pesticide applications at all. In addition, nitrogen is not applied to soybean fields as they, with help from Nitrogen fixing bacteria, are bale to convert N2 into protein.

  8. #8 ScienceWoman
    October 17, 2007

    Mike – Soil mama is lumping herbicides and pesticides under the general heading of pesticides. Roundup is an herbicide and it is sprayed on soybean crops – that’s why they make Roundup ready soybeans after all. Of course, you know this, but you are just choosing to nitpick.

  9. #9 Mike
    October 17, 2007

    It is not a nitpick. Pesticides in general have a greater risk to humans than to herbicides. Glyphosate is an environmentally friendly herbicide that breaks down rapidly in the environment. In contrast many pesticides are nerve agents. To equate the two is blatant scare mongering. Unfortunately such tactics are endemic within the organic “movement.”

  10. #10 ScienceWoman
    October 17, 2007

    Actually, I wrote a term paper on glypohosate in graduate school, so you’ll find no argument from me on that point. But don’t dismiss soil mama as an uninformed tree hugger. She happens to be getting a PhD in a very relevant field and knows of what she speaks.