If you’re reading this, you’re one of a fortunate tiny minority of people. Nothing to do with this column, just that you live in a region close to the outdoors and agricultural lands, and you’re not watching television, at least at the moment. Yet early COVID fears of running out of toilet paper are being replaced by fears of running out of food, which may be a self-curing situation. As we move into the pandemic experience, we are beginning to understand that this is not a one-time event that will soon return to normal. It’s a part of awakening to the fragility of the normalcy we have been taking for granted, from commuting to dining to democracy. But there is a bright side to it: COVID is uncovering the intolerable practices that sustain our way of life, practices that include the way we use land, water, animals and other human beings. We are participants in an extraction-based society, and extractive practices end in change and conflict. We have created fearful shortages in the past, but the response was to move somewhere else, and when somewhere was already occupied, it ended in warfare, enslavement and genocide. It was easy to believe that wars with rifles and cannons could have a good ending with victors and vanquished. Wars with thermonuclear bombs—not so easy to believe. Every day we are inundated with choices in what to believe; for instance, choices between worrisome but well-documented statements by experts about how to deal with COVID, versus nonsensical reassurances of why not to wear masks, or of miracle drugs that will take care of the problem, or of why it’s safe for grownups to congregate in bars and for children to attend summer camps. Bad choices yield bad outcomes, but good choices depend on good information, and it isn’t easy to separate sense from nonsense, even using my favorite scientific research tools: Google, Wikipedia, YouTube, TED talks, and yes, plain observation. So where’s the melody in all the noise? The good news and bad news are the same: we are living in the sunset of a 10,000-year-old culture of separation and extraction. As soon as we learned how to store grains, special people started controlling the distribution of the goods and inventing gods, laws and weapons to control those who didn’t follow the rules. We created separations based on property, status, beliefs and skin color. Even our science was based on the idea of separate things, from apples (Newton’s physics), to galaxies (Einstein’s relativity) to subatomic particles (quantum mechanics), yet even these powerful tools describe only the material portion of reality. Fortunately, our science is also changing rapidly. In Central Colorado, especially the agricultural San Luis and Upper Arkansas Valleys, the casualties of separation and extraction are arising. The climate is drying throughout the Rocky Mountain region, in large part due to the ways we use land and water. This has happened before, but it was easier to pick up a tee-pee and move closer to a river than to feed tens of thousands of people who produce only a tiny fraction of their food. We may be the new Anasazi, the ancient Puebloans who abruptly deserted their homes and emigrated to the Rio Grande Valley when the rains failed in the 13th century. Our extractions during the last 150 years have put us in the same position as the Anasazi. Our first extraction was land. We Northern Europeans moved west from the eastern United States without understanding how to sustainably graze our livestock. The grasses that held water in the soil were grazed off and summer thunderstorms quickly excavated the gullies we see throughout the entire region. The next extraction was water. We treat water as a trade able commodity separated from the land, not as an integral element of the land and living systems it falls on. The reservoirs and irrigation ditches we built for farming the land carry water that is valued not for the food it can grow, but for the revenue it generates when sold to the highest bidder. Much of the water in our rivers is committed to surrounding states, and the terms ignore our decreasing rainfall and snow pack. Farm-able land is valued not for the food it produces, but for the revenue it generates by being subdivided for rural home sites surrounded by new mini-deserts. When they abandoned their homes, the ancient Puebloans left behind empty granaries and untilled fields. Our own granaries are emptying as well: the empty spaces on our supermarket shelves will expand now that warehouse supplies are depleting, and COVID-reduced harvests around the world won’t refill them. There is no physical Rio Grande Valley for us to move to. The food and water that supply Front Range cities come from right where we now live. Our Rio Grande refuge is that we now know what changes we must make to survive and thrive, but the changes require abandoning the practices that created the subdivision deserts, eroding range land
, poisoned soils and the diseases that originate in the ecosystems we disrupt. We won’t find solutions in the upper management of supermarket chains, or the corporate owners of mega-farms and stockyards in the Midwest. The solutions are emerging in local organizations now forming to regenerate our food systems. The best strategy for brightening our future will be acts of generosity and service within our local communities; dedicating our resources to organizations like Chaffee Local Food Coalition, Colorado Food Systems Coalition, Guidestone Colorado, or SOIL Sangre de Cristo, to name just a few. Get to know the vendors at your farmers’ markets and find out what they need to be here next year. Get your backyard greenhouses and cold frames into production and grow some herbs and veggies, swap your surplus with your neighbors and freeze, can, or dry your harvests. It could put food on your shelves that is far healthier than almost anything you can buy at the supermarket.
Ed Berg is recovering from his retirement from the oil industry by becoming an agricultural activist. It pays to give back to the Earth.