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GP3Dec03: Turkey Restoration; Green Renewal

Thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving was low key and ambling this year, and we stubbornly clung to the rituals of the past as best we could amidst a world driven by change.  Pumpkins embellished the front steps, and the turkey in its brine crowded all else out of the refrigerator two days before we sat down to a table adorned with china and crystal that had comforted family celebrants for several generations before us.  Our recipe, which is published at Best of Class, rewarded us with an unusually juicy turkey whose natural flavor blended nicely with the rosemary.  The oyster dressing had a lushness that would have made the Pilgrims more worshipful.  Fried turkey, you will have heard, is in fashion, but was not welcome at our festivities.  For the first time, a California pinot noir made its way onto our sideboard, and its full bodied flavor put the lie to our notion that all California wines come out of a secret factory buried beneath the hills astride Northern California’s valleys. 

About a Bird.  Clearly, however, we should have worried more about the provenance of our turkey than our wine.  On November 24, 2003, a rending New York Times Op-Ed article, “About a Bird,” by Patrick Martins, director of Slow Food U.S.A., told the story of turkey manufacturing in these United States.  Turkeys in the wild are no more. “With the arrival of factory turkey farming in the 1960’s, all that changes.  Factory-farm turkeys don’t ever see the outdoors.  Instead, as many as 10,000 turkeys that hatched at the same time are herded from brooders into a giant barn,” there in 24-hour cellblock lighting to eat wood shavings, no hint of grass in sight.  These days they are all Broad Breasted Whites, designed to generate heaps of white meat, but all other virtuous characteristics are sacrificed in order to secure the most meat fastest.  They are laced with antibiotics to prevent the diseases that could easily overcome their very weak immune systems, a byproduct of their poor factory breeding.  Someday this breed could  be wiped out by an errant virus, given its weak genetic structure.  

Because of this unnatural breeding and bizarre nurture, these turkeys are dry and tasteless when they come to market.  So the brine soaking we do is utterly necessary to produce decent flavor.  As chef, you are obliged to put the taste back in that the factories are taking out.  Incidentally, Robert Parker, the esteemed wine critic from Virginia, tells us that the same sort of standardized factory tastelessness is invading much wine from America and Australia.   

The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (www.albc-usa.org) is working to preserve more genetically resplendent turkey breeds that are nearing extinction.  Without such biodiversity, it theorizes, we will probably lose forever all sorts of animal species on the planet earth.  On a recent visit with the ALBC staff, we learned of the pigs, and cows, and goats, and hens that could disappear from our midst. 

The Greens are Blue.  For sure, the last 3 years, and we think the last 30 years, has found the environmental movement to be in perpetual retreat, whether it’s trying to conserve oceans, forests, sky, birds, animals, or the very idea of biological diversity.  Surveys aplenty show that the environment fell off the table of important issues after 9/11.  By 2002, only 40% of Americans thought that the environment was a table-thumping matter, as opposed to the 60% who gave it tacit support before the attack on the Twin Towers. 

We suspect that the Greens’ base of support had long been in decline, however.  We have learned that the National Audubon Society, which we have just added to our Global Province Network (see www.globalprovince.com/network.htm), has been very perceptive about this erosion.  It knows that the nation is becoming very ethnically diverse and very urban, realizing that the newest Americans are not immediately drawn to conservation.   Its programs are heavily geared towards mixing up these new urbanites with greenspaces.  The hope is that when the city ethnics try out nature, they’ll like it, and they’ll tell the politicians to conserve and preserve.  It’s not as easy to find environmental votes in the Congress these days.  This difficulty is mirrored in the courts where judges now apparently are looking at environmental suits with more of a gimlet-eye.  (See “The Demise of Environmentalism in American Law” at www.federalismproject.org/masterpages/publications/books/demise.html). 

The problems of the environmental movement run even deeper, we surmise.  Environmental cant, however well meant, often overstates its case and, even more importantly, fails to capture the electorate because it does not quite ring true.  In other words, some of the Greens employ hazy science.  And they’re commonly lousy marketers, to boot, relying on a tired liturgy to peddle their wares.  They can probably limp along with porous thinking.  But they’ll become extinct if they can’t sell better. 

The Skeptical Environmentalist.  In 2001, Bjorn Lomborg of Denmark came forth with a book by this name in which he debunked many of the cardinal truths and doomsday prophecies of the environmental movement.  He has been hated and reviled by scientists aplenty (see Big Ideas) and even by some of his university colleagues with whom we have been in touch.  Their rancor knows no bounds, and goes well beyond the limits of scientific etiquette.  His thinking, incidentally, is derived from Julian Simon, a University of Maryland business administration professor who died in 1998 but who took on the whole galaxy of environmental gods such as Paul Ehrlich before his demise.  In fact, Simon and Lomborg are probably wrong on most of the big questions, but the emotional defensiveness of their attackers shows how just how kneejerk environmentalists have become and how spongy their thinking is.  As interesting is that the world largely ignored this heated debate among academics, further indicating that the environment has been sidelined by the American mind.   

Even if you are a devout Green, you may sense that the claims and priorities of environmentalism need to be re-examined.  As Yogi Berra would surely say if asked, “The earth ain’t over til it’s over.”  We’re not as short of food as Malthus expected, nor are we running out of resources as fast as Ehrlich thought.  We must ask for a little more clarity as to what most needs to be done today to create greater harmony between man and nature. 

Adverse Selection.  “Adverse selection” is a term used by insurance folks to label their biggest dread.  Their great fear is that they will sign up too many people for insurance policies who will die, crash their cars, burn their houses down, and do other costly things, and not get enough of the solid citizens who never make claims and so ultimately provide a fat living for insurance executives.  “Adverse selection” is when you attract all of the deadbeats and none of the cash cows. 

We think the “adverse selection” tag can be applied to any system where you collect weaknesses and exclude strengths.  Windows, by Microsoft, inherently embeds weaknesses and security flaws as we said in a prior letter  (See “Hollywood Parables; Distributed Intelligence”); Linux has the possibility of moving from strength to strength.  Factory turkey breeders, in their search for fast, cheap white meat, have cut out all the desirable characteristics that lead to species with real longevity.  Our national electric grid is peppered with holes that inevitably lead to blackouts. 

“Adverse selection,” we suggest, is the core intellectual thread that all environmentalists should grasp.  Whether we are thinking about rainforests or turkeys, we are most worried about how their absence will so destabilize the world ecosystem as to make life torturous or impossible.  When we take things away, are our systems left only with the bad stuff?  The problem here is to better quantify the risks associated with various forms of environmental degradation.  The environment, as much as schools or electric power grids, is part of our infrastructure and, if it’s in bad repair, our lives and our economies go to pot.  Every human activity poses a threat to the environment, but we need some better calibration on what’s serious, what’s catastrophic, and what’s terminal.  Until Americans can better grasp the perils posed by a weakened environment and see the upside of real alternatives, there’s not much hope of slaking their thirst for SUVs, oversized homes, and maintenance-free (read: no trees) landscapes.  But, with a sharper message, environmentalists can become the consummate pro-life advocates.    

McDonough’s Run.  William McDonough is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia who has passionately worked the environment into his sale of services to The Gap, Nike, Ford, and others (see www.myhero.com/hero.asp?hero=w_mcdonough, www.mcdonough.com, and our Global Province Letter, “In Praise of Instability”).  He sketches out how to create stable building systems where nothing is wasted and a building’s run-offs are correctly recycled into nature.  He attempts to merge ecosystems and economics, with some success.  To put it bluntly, we think he’s the sort of salesman environmentalists need, because he can make a business case for treating the world well and, in fact, can show that poor environmental practices are terribly expensive for everyone.  The McDonoughs of the world underscore the need for fruitful alliances between enlightened entrepreneurs and environmental advocates in order to recharge the batteries of the Green Machine.  With such enrichment, the green impulse becomes less a force for preventing evil and more of a post-Puritan ethic for creating value.  Suddenly environmentalism is no longer a zero-sum game. 

Reasons for Optimism.  Fortunately McDonough’s upside vision is not all hogwash.  The fact is that while the environmental movement is flagging, the technology is coming on line that may lead to a better, post-industrial economic environment.  And, curiously enough, more corporations are flying the environmental banner, as we said in our Global Province Letter, “New Shades of Green.”   Wind, ocean, and solar power, laughed at just a few short years ago, are becoming more practical (see Big Ideas, items 56 and 58).  Hybrid cars, which use much less gasoline, are now offered by the Japanese, and an American version is promised soon by the environment-friendly William Clay Ford.  We’re beginning to use lab-generated bugs to eat sludge and other wastes.   

New products are, at least, beginning to be much more energy efficient.  Boeing’s 7E7 Jet promises a 20% leap in efficiency plus lots of new ergonomics that will make life easier for the traveler.  Intel’s new Pentium M, specially designed for laptops, even if slower, will use a lot less power, guaranteeing users more battery time between recharging.  This attention to energy-saving and user convenience may ultimately dovetail with environmental initiatives.  Some technology, at last, is headed in a greener direction that accommodates human wants and needs. 

Thanksgiving Rules Revisited.  In the New Yorker (December 1, 2003, p. 52), Canadian humorist Bruce McCall proposes that Thanksgiving, like the Green Movement, has grown a bit musty and needs to be refurbished.  “Article XII of the 1663 Jamestown Convention has been amended as of this date to include the following:  1. Thanksgiving-dinner guests are no longer required to play Scrabble, Go Fish, or Monopoly with children under the age of ten.  Withholding of liquor is coercion.”  He has 12 other lifesaving new rules.   

The Greens, too, need a little gentle revisionism, while holding onto the spirit of the old.  The world needs conservation without conservative statism that impedes all progress.  On Thanksgiving 2003, America is blessed with the kinds of knowledge that can lead to Green profits and a Green renewal.

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