Here’s the world I want…


“Only 2 percent of the US’s rivers and wetlands are free-flowing. Less than half of the original wetlands remain. Along the Mississippi and its tributaries, only 20 percent of the bottomland hardwood forests are left, and cut off from the rivers by levees, those are doomed to slow starvation…

What you do need to hear is that the river has been destroyed for agriculture. To grow grain in areas with hot, dry summers requires water. Not a living river, but water. A real river floods. The wetlands luxuriate in silt and moisture, then slowly release the water back to the river. But agriculturalists want land. They take it from the forests and prairies and marshes, and they don’t want it to flood. And once food is turned into a commodity, it has to be transported from where it’s literally mined from the last of the dead prairie soils, to the population centers along the coasts from Portland, Oregon to Portland, Maine, and across the world. So the river is turned to water, confined to concrete channels cut deep enough for barges that carry the oil and gas to fuel all of this, and for the barges that ship tons of annual grains that will become your daily bread. The channels stop the fresh river water from feeding the marshes and swamps–and the vacuum is filled by salt water. And digging deep enough for the barges also increases the flow of salt water entering marshes and swamps. The salt, of course, kills them. 

Meanwhile snowmelts and heavy rain increase the volume and velocity of the water in the channels. Without wetlands to absorb the excess, the force of the water builds until the inevitable floods are catastrophic. Writes Ted Williams, ‘The only flood protection that ever worked is wetlands.’

When the water does finally explode into the Gulf, it’s carrying a burden of nutrients–nitrogen runoff from row crops and factory-farmed animal manure–beyond what the normal balance of lifeforms can absorb. The excess nitrogen causes algae to grow exponentially. As the algae die, the bacteria step up to the dinner plate. Now there’s an abundance of bacteria, and they need oxygen. They need so much of it that nothing else breathing can live there. Anything that can swim fast enough gets out of the way. Anything that can’t, dies. There is a dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi that’s the size of New Jersey…Gulf_Main_Web.jpg

Yes, the farms in the Mississippi watershed could apply fertilizer more sparingly. Please, apply it more sparingly. Maybe we can have a dead zone the size of Rhode Island instead. But is that really what you want to argue for?

Because here’s the world I want.

Before the US Army Corps of Engineers ‘improved’ the river, as it likes to say, there were no floodwalls and levees for the Mississippi to blast through. It did not drown or render homeless the Americans who lived beside it… On the high ground they waited for the river to creep and seep through a rich mosaic of wooded islands, wild rice fields, sloughs, meadows, woods, ponds, and prairies–delivering seeds, renewing the earth with its gentle snow of sediments…

And beside the river was a prairie that nurtured bison, antelope, grey wolves, and black-footed ferrets. And humans. We lived there once, too, not on it, but in it. We do have a choice, but it’s not between life or death. It’s between being predators or destroyers, between the food that we live inside and food that we impose across the world.”

The Vegetarian Myth

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