Editor’s Comments: Dealing With Paradox

Feb. 23, 2012

A research report on loss of agricultural land to urbanization, landed on my desk a while back, in which it was pointed out that, in fact, three-quarters of the decline in ag-land is the result of other factors than those related to urbanization. While I agree that urbanization per se may not be a major driver in the loss of arable land, I don’t think this means we should curtail discussion on the subject of development and its impact on soil loss, water, and air quality, and the potential impact of these on agriculture. In fact, I would hope that future studies might wish to consider: (1) conversion of prime ag-land (where it should be patently obvious that all land is not created equal); and (2) accelerated soil loss almost everywhere as a result of increasing development.

All too often left out of discussion in meeting the legitimate need for urban (and suburban) expansion is the exploration of alternatives that envision the downstream impacts of development…that it just doesn’t cease with the completion of the project currently under discussion. Though we have all seen projects that were environmental and economic disasters from day one, I think they are rare enough and isolated enough to be of little consequence since they carry with them hard lessons for others to consider. Instead, it seems to me we face a far greater-and decidedly more certain-danger from the aggregation of numerous smaller projects in which their linked effects have gone unnoticed until a triggering event brings about calamity.

I’m still wobbly in my thoughts about the establishment of regulatory sticks and carrots. Philosophically, I resent them, but from a practical standpoint I have come to question my stance…particularly where we get into the issue of deeply entrenched self-interests. It seems to me that the preservation of a free market requires a strong enough dose of self-restraint tossed in with the self-interest to call that self-interest “enlightened”…and self-restraint is a precious commodity in this day and age.

I think of Malibu, CA, as a model for unintended but highly predictable consequences of development within its exciting but tenuous setting between a wilderness area and the Pacific Ocean, where every 10 years or so a pair of linked events-wildfires that devastate thousands of acres of brush land followed in short order by floods and mudslides-lead to the donation of a significant amount topsoil to the ocean floor.

Both these events surge to the top of the nation’s news ratings for a week or so and then flitter off into oblivion. While it is no surprise that the public has a very short memory for such events, the sad part is that the same situation applies to the public officials who continue to issue permits for projects that further the encroachment into wilderness areas without providing for adequate fire and flood infrastructure to rein in the devastation that is sure to follow. What is needed in such instances is not the stick-and-carrot approach to land use planning and permitting, but rather a heavy dose of political restraint in opposing development where ordinary economic and environmental safeguards cannot be provided.

So back to the ag-land loss study, where my concern is not whether its conclusions are valid, but that they might serve to mask more fundamental issues, such as an accelerating loss of soil and a fundamental change in the ecosystems that have brought us to where we are.

Without proven yardsticks to guide us, we have no way to measure the Earth’s ability to absorb and/or adapt to the industrial age assault, or whether the long-range results will be positive or negative for life as we know it. We can, however, say with some certainty that the world our grandchildren inherit and their ability to adapt to it will be different…and maybe less compliant to their needs than you and I can imagine.

Yes, these possibilities concern me, but what scares the living hell out of me is that as the impacts of these changes become more pronounced, we will see the rise of tyrants peddling draconian solutions. And why not, if we’re not willing to show self-restraint and demand the same of our elected officials? Our grandchildren might wish that we had not been so philosophical about this and other issues that threaten to indenture them.