Rotten Fruits of Climate Change

By Pete Shaw

“Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond.  The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again.  All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur—this lovely world, these precious days.”–Charlotte

I grew up in New Jersey. Despite industrialization, the Garden State still earns its nickname, growing more than smokestacks, chemical plants, and oil refineries. During colonial times New Jersey was the breadbasket of the colonies, and through the years it gained fame for its corn and tomatoes. I can still remember stopping as a kid on the way home from the beach at family roadside vegetable stands, where my mom and dad would pick up freshly picked ears that we would throw on the barbecue an hour later and some tomatoes that would go in a salad and later on hamburgers.

Due to a lack of pesticide and petroleum based fertilizer use, the tomatoes often looked imperfect, sometimes mutated, but they all bounced with flavor, and sometimes when I think the world could have blissfully ended then, I remind myself that the fresh meal was just the opening act for the fireflies that would close the curtain on those perfect summer days.

My dad still lives in New Jersey, in the same house in fact. Most of those small family farms and their roadside stands are gone, replaced by houses, or they have transitioned into growing sod, a pillar of the suburban lifestyle. And it seems most of the remaining “farms” produce food that is meant for a world we never wanted despite being told otherwise, one where the pleasure of food lies not in ancient rituals of friends and families gathering as a community to break bread, tell stories, seek counsel, and strengthen bonds, but rather as a quick transition to finishing work not completed at the office or watching something on television.

The tomatoes I will get when I visit my father in a few weeks, even from the store that putatively sells more “high end” produce, are just beautifully packaged water, devoid of flavor, and no different from any other tomato in the manicured pile. The corn is sometimes sweet, but there is simply no comparison with corn eaten the same day it is picked. When I had corn as a kid, my folks never said the corn was sweet. Because it always was.

Oregon is not New Jersey, and the climate here is not conducive to growing what grows in New Jersey. Still, like spawning salmon swimming upstream, I have a biological imperative to grow tomatoes. I’ve largely been successful, growing mostly pretty organic tomatoes that most often taste great and become an essential element of my attempts at pizza. But to grow really good organic tomatoes out here, Mother Nature has to smile on you. I am lucky in that I have a couple of perfect spots for tomatoes, assuming there is some sun and warmth, but this year I also found myself taking drastic measures such as digging at the roots, a brutal act that convinces the plant it is dying and makes it devote its energies to producing the fruits that hold its seed.

Obviously, Mother Nature, that fickle temptress, is sometimes even nastier than she was this year. Two summers ago was the worst I can recall. Spring was long, wet, and cold. The only good thing I can say is that I did not grow any tomatoes as they were not in the yearly rotation.

And herein lies an important nut: it barely registered a bother for me. I take great joy in eating food I grow, as well as sharing that food with others. But as I did not grow any tomatoes, I simply bought organic tomatoes at one of the many co-ops and farmers’ markets we luckily have in Portland. Had the rains destroyed the tomato crop within the range of the co-ops and farmers’ markets purchasing strictures, I probably would have found a substitute, or more likely, as I am not sure there is a substitute, just gone without.

With the results of climate change upon us, often in a not-so-subtle fashion, and with scientists stating that resultant weather will become more violent and unpredictable, those of us in more industrialized nations will have a better chance of riding out some of the crises than others. At the same time, we must acknowledge that we in the more industrialized nations bear the great weight of responsibility for the devastation those in less industrialized nations will endure. We consume the vast amount of petroleum whose acquisition, transport, and burning has led to the climate crisis.

Many people in Central and South America suffer from the consequences of 500 years of European and US imperialism, even as many of those countries are throwing off that yoke. Those consequences include severe oppression at the hands of brutal, corrupt dictatorships, as well as more concrete issues surrounding infrastructure: poor, limited road systems; polluted air and water; inadequate sanitation; and dilapidated bridges just to name a few. Furthermore, there still exist laws giving corporations carte blanche to vomit greenhouse gases as they please, sometimes upheld through falsely named free-trade agreements, and for those corporations that violate laws, the amount of money they can bring to bear on politicians and political systems is immense.

Because of the lack of infrastructure, a series of heavy rains will not necessarily destroy just one crop. It may destroy a whole harvest. And that destruction will affect far more people than in the United States, and the consequences will be more dire. Starvation, even famine, is not out of the question. Epidemics may follow.

These are not hypotheticals. The Amazon basin has been in a terrible drought—the worst on record—for many months. It is estimated that 60,000 people in Brazil’s Amazonas State went hungry and many also lacked potable water due to contamination from millions of dead fish in November of last year. Scientists are predicting that in a hundred years, if we do nothing, the Amazon will look like the Serengeti. This is not a local disaster: the destruction of the planet’s carbon sink will affect us all.

Individual solutions of the kind our consumer society promotes will not solve the problem and will not provide justice, certainly not for the 21,000 people killed in climate-related disasters, as detailed in a recent Oxfam report covering the first nine months of 2010. []

To fight climate change, we need a system change. The petroleum-fueled capitalist economic system that has brought us this climate crisis is not a product of nature but of choice. We can choose and create a different system. Indeed, it is now clear that we must.

Nothing else will cut it. Replacing your incandescent bulbs with CFLs is nice, and it may feel good, but it does almost nothing towards changing a carbon emissions-based economy. In fact, the electricity lighting your CFL probably comes to you courtesy of petroleum or coal. And no, nuclear energy does not count as clean fuel.

But individual solutions can give us guidance. Here in Portland we can take advantage of many community-supported agriculture projects (CSAs), co-ops, and farmers’ markets for local, organic produce, the production and transportation of which produces far fewer carbon emissions than most supermarket produce. Or we can grow our own organic tomatoes, taking up the adventure of working the soil and experimenting with varieties that we might otherwise never taste. From good seeds come healthy plants.

Then do something. Make a tomato salad. Make burgers and put your tomatoes on them. Make sauce and use it in a lasagna with greens that you got from your garden, co-op, or CSA. From healthy plants come beautiful fruits.

Then do something more. Share your bounty with someone. Share it with many someones; as we learned when young, food tastes better when shared. And when the growth of that food does not depend excessively upon the substances that exacerbate the climate crisis and pollute our air and waterways, with a single bite we and our many someones might wonder why other someones whom we have never met — but with whom we share the same aspirations and desires and fears and hopes — must endure the unjust rotten fruits of climate change.

And then we may reach a startling conclusion: they need not.

Reach out and bring them to this table, one of bounty for all. And when they graciously invite us to their table, we should accept the invitation, sharing food, experiences, love, and a fine hunger for justice with our brothers and sisters. From those beautiful fruits will come more healthy seeds.

Pete Shaw is a member of the Climate Justice Coalition, he is one of PCASC’s treasured volunteers.