by Jennifer Powell
Creating good childhood memories with my children is important to me: team sports, family camping trips, backyard barbeques, lovable pets, and birthday parties. More importantly, I hope to give my children a sense of connection to their community and the land and to bolster their capacity to face the challenges of the world they will inherit from my generation. These challenges can feel hopelessly overwhelming. Our current ecological and social realities make it easy for anyone with awareness to fall into despair. Therefore, I want to give my children a sense of hope against the dire backdrop of capitalist consumption-driven climate change. Real hope springs through engaging with reality as it stands, yet responding as a loving community toward changing the things that we can. Recently, I was presented with an opportunity for the children and families in our watershed to plant the seeds of that kind of hope and help them grow as I became aware of pesticide use on school grounds, and advocacy in my community against that management style. In what follows, I’ll share my story of becoming aware of this problem, connect it to themes in the biblical tradition, articulate some of the cultural problems we currently face in the United States, discuss some of the problems with pesticide use, and end by describing some of what my community is doing to move in a healthier direction.
Few places in local communities touch more lives than school grounds: the acres of land that provide the earth foundation for our learning centers. Beyond the classroom buildings, these acres house the fields upon which our communities play team sports, exercise, train dogs, fly kites and frisbees, and the playgrounds where our children jump and swing. They are the sites where childhood memories and foundational ethics are formed and the future is shaped.
I spent a lot of time on a school ground for the first time since becoming a parent in 2014, coaching soccer for my son’s team. We practiced on the fields of an alternative school with a focus on sustainability. The school has a large organic garden with tall sunflowers, vegetables, insects, and birds. My spirit felt glad each time I saw that garden and it was a joy to watch the kids, waiting for their siblings to finish practice, playing hide and seek there and asking their parents about the flowers and vegetables they saw.
Contrasting with the beauty of that garden, on various hillsides and fence borders around the grounds were wide swaths of bare, compacted earth, colored yellow and covered with dead weeds. I cringed as I saw children playing in those dead places, sitting in those soils, little hands crawling around in the dirt and then moving up into noses and mouths. I remember yelling at my own children to “stay out of the yellow!” because I could see those places had recently been sprayed with herbicide. It disturbed me to see herbicide used so liberally in places where our children gather and play.
A year or two later I met a local woman, Annie Odean, who was spearheading a community-based effort to stop the spraying of our school grounds with pesticides. She was collecting signatures to present to the school board in my watershed in Lane County, Oregon, to ask them to stop spraying pesticides on our school grounds.
As a preschool teacher, Annie had noticed the yellowing of grasses around the playground fence line in the spring when everything is green, and had called the school district to ask them to stop spraying pesticides in the areas where the kids played. She began recording the spraying with photographs from her own school grounds as well as other schools in the area. She noticed trees and shrubs dying in the sprayed areas, and soil became unable to sustain life beyond unwanted weeds. As Annie spoke with parents and others about what she was seeing, she found another woman in the community who had also been taking photographs to record the evidence for her concerns. That woman happened to be leading a community political action to ban the aerial spraying of pesticides in our watershed. Yet another concerned woman said to Annie, “You know, I think there’s a law.”
Annie began to search for the policies governing the spraying of pesticides on school grounds and found her way to Beyond Toxics, a nonprofit in Oregon that “works for all Oregonians to empower individuals and communities to find solutions that protect human and environmental health.” Beyond Toxics helped with legal research and discovered that herbicides are not to be used on school grounds simply for aesthetic reasons, and should be considered only as a last resort even in non-aesthetic cases.
In addition, Annie found that in 2009, South Lane School District (SLSD) had adopted the Sustainable Oregon Schools Initiative, or SOSI. Recognizing the importance of developing a strong ethic of sustainability in its practices, the district outlined guidelines for sustainability, suggesting an interdependent effort comprised of community stakeholders from the school district, parents, local government, and nonprofit organizations. Annie simply began by asking SLDS to participate with its own adopted ethic. This effort is exciting because, should the district follow through with this ethic for sustainability, a large intersection of the watershed community could be involved in an intergenerational effort toward health and restoration over many acres of land and educate scores of people in their school-age years and beyond.
Appropriate practical education could serve to facilitate the paradigm shift humanity so sorely needs at this time in our history. The challenges we face due to consumer driven, human-made climate change are no secret, yet we continue to seek to solve these problems from within the exact paradigm that has caused the problems. The nature of this problematic paradigm and cause of our seeming powerlessness to effectively address the challenges before us is, to a large degree, capitalist alienation.
Vincent J. Miller writes in Consuming Religion (2013):
“In advanced capitalism, aesthetic production and much of everyday culture are integrated into economic production.”
He goes on to make the case that we are living in a late capitalist “hyper-reality” based upon the supposition that our identities are essentially a pastiche of the goods and services we consume. Absolutely everything in our capitalist society is viewed through the lens of its material value, including nature. Most alarming is the fact that the abstraction of commodity from the conditions of production are a necessity of the capitalist economy. This is because awareness of production conditions and their consequences might give us pause as commodity consumers.
This hyper-realistic way of living causes alienation from true community and the land. People do not know where their food and products come from. They do not know the specific needs and unique qualities of the land around them or the rhythms and diversity inherent in their own communities. In short, the good and appropriate inherent desire within each of us for relationship with God and God’s ordering, or shalom, becomes misplaced, seeking to be answered through consumption, but never to be satiated. It is only through reimagining the utilization of our institutions toward a different, incarnational paradigm (shalom) that we will break free of the hyper-real divisions that threaten our planet and all future generations.
The truth is, human beings are in an inescapable relationship with the land. Land management could even be called the task for which humanity exists (Genesis 2:15).
The rain and the cycles, the plants that spring forth because of the rain, the earth itself, the breath of life and humankind all join together in the tilling of the ground, in the garden. Therefore, the wisdom of the Hebrew scripture invites us to root ourselves in the world through agrarian partnership with God.
In The Art of the Commonplace, Wendell Berry (2010) writes:
“It is wrong to think that bodily health is compatible with spiritual confusion or cultural disorder, or with polluted air and water or impoverished soil.”
Put simply, the state of the land is a reflection of the state of human spiritual and physical health.
Walter Brueggemann (Living Toward a Vision: Biblical Reflections on Shalom, 1984) puts it this way:
“Shalom is the substance of the biblical vision of one community embracing all creation. It refers to all those resources and factors which make communal harmony joyous and effective.”
The harmony and efficacy Brueggemann refers to includes all of created life, yet, because our society operates out of the late capitalist hyper-real consumerist alienation, our current land management practices represent division and destruction rather than unity with the land. Conversely, embracing and healing the land would go far to heal our societal spiritual and physical suffering.
“Living out shalom means taking into account all of creation in reciprocal relationships and learning from creation as object lessons for understanding God’s shalom provision. In shalom, one fills Heaven’s purse by redistributing wealth on earth to all who are in need,”
according to Randy Woodley (Shalom and the Community of Creation, 2012). This sharing of wealth includes sharing with the land and all of creation.
Currently, exploitation is what we choose. The United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment from 2005 states that current practices in agriculture and land management may be “the largest threat to biodiversity and ecosystem function of any single human activity.” Second only to energy consumption, approximately one fifth of greenhouse gas emissions are generated by our agriculture, forestry and other land use practices.
It is clear that the current capitalist, consumer-driven approach to land use and management is no longer a viable approach and that radical reform is necessary, so why does it feel as if things aren’t changing? Matthew Humphrey (in Myers, ed., Watershed Discipleship, 2016) states:
“Challenging broken identities and false narratives….requires that we confront the idolatries which have alienated us from God, one another, and creation; that we repent; and that we follow the way of Jesus, which reorients our action and identity in the world.”
All of this can feel overwhelming, leading us toward despair. How can we even begin to do this work? It reminds me of the age-old question “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer, of course, is, “One bite at a time.” This requires us to figure out a bite-sized piece we can work on, and the courage and willingness to set to work, changing the things we can within our own communities and watersheds. We can change the paradigm one meal, purchase, garden, and field at a time. The piece I am currently working on has to do with pesticide use on school grounds, and therefore, I needed to learn a bit more about pesticides.
Pesticides are the number one tool people reach for in land management today. This can be traced back to the post-war era, when the face of agriculture changed radically. Seeking to expand food production and security in war-torn European landscapes, the tanks of war were converted to tractors to clear and work the land. Factories produced synthetic nitrogen for use as fertilizer, dramatically increasing agricultural production and circumventing the need for forage crops, previously planted for grazing animals to eat as they fertilized fields for the next season. Chemicals such as 2,4-D, which had been explored as potential weapons to devastate the food supply of the enemy, evolved into agricultural pesticides (Orion, Beyond the War on Invasive Species, 2015).
In addition to nitrogen, glyphosate began to be used, and is now the most widely and heavily used pesticide in the history of chemical agriculture. Its use has increased since 1996, when genetically modified monoculture crops, designed to be glyphosate resistant, were commercially introduced. Over 720,000 metric tons of glyphosate were produced in 2012.
Glyphosate is used across a wide spectrum of land management sites, which include forestry, urban, industrial, schools, roadsides, public spaces, and home applications, in addition to agriculture. Since its commercial release in the mid-1970s, Round-up, the retail brand name for the glyphosate-based herbicide manufactured by Monsanto, has been readily available to the consumer at stores carrying conventional gardening supplies. Pesticides like glyphosate splashed onto the scene and were perceived as safe, easy to use, and effective. To a large degree, that is the way they are still perceived today. The corporate producers of these chemicals spend billions of dollars each year on advertising to ensure that perception. Yet, glyphosate has recently been labeled a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization.
In the Lane County watershed, one of the most concerning uses of pesticides is the aerial spraying of forests. Most commonly, a mixture of glyphosate, atrazine and 2,4-D (an ingredient in the chemical weapon Agent Orange) is sprayed via helicopter, crop duster or drone over nearly 600,000 acres of industrial forested land, over one fifth of the land in Lane County and the Coast Fork Willamette Watershed. This is done in order to manage forest clearcuts, which are accepted as normal in my watershed. Excess chemical compounds from the sprays run off into waterways and can cause dangerous imbalances, impacting water quality and safety downstream.
Further, clearcutting and industrial spraying require only a few people to run machinery, reducing the number of available jobs in forest management. Corporate entities who own the forests profit from this management tactic, but communities living near the forests receive little economic benefit and bear the brunt of the toxicity and damages.
I spoke to Tao Orion, an expert in the fields of organic farming, agroecology, permaculture design, and ethnobotany, about the consequences of this type of forest management, and her answers went beyond these immediate problems. Many of the clear cuts in Lane County are now on their second or third rotation. She pointed out that Germany has been using these types of forest management practices slightly longer than we have in the Northwest, and the soils in their forests are collapsing after the third or fourth rotation of clearcut, spray, and regrowth, meaning the soils become incapable of growing anything. Corporate landowners now spray synthetic nitrogen to get things to grow in the dead soil. This will work for a rotation or two, but beyond that, nobody knows what will happen.
Another unforeseen problem is the effect of herbicidal management on animal life. Wasting disease is currently observed in deer and elk. The broadcast spraying of glyphosate, which is a mineral chelator, binds up soil minerals and makes them unavailable to plants, which, in turn, blocks enzymes necessary for the synthesis of vital proteins in these animals. Deficiencies in copper and selenium cause deer and elk problems with fur, antler, and hoof growth.
In other wildlife news, buffer zones on either side of streams have been narrowed for spraying convenience, wreaking havoc on riparian ecosystems. Tao Orion has witnessed streams that used to be year-round drying up, and fish that used to travel up their ancestral streams to spawn no longer have access.
For all these reasons and more, I feel a sense of prophetic urgency to help make a shift in the way my culture relates to the rest of the world. One way to begin is to teach children a different paradigm (Samuelsson & Kaga in State of the World, 2010). An interdisciplinary approach involving children, parents and community members in learning sustainable practices through concrete, real life experiences is one way to begin creating the shift away from the industrialized post-war capitalist style of land management and toward the true peace and prosperity of shalom.
While it doesn’t solve all the problems related to pesticide and herbicide use and aerial spraying mentioned above, using different tools to find alternative solutions at least on our school grounds is a solid step in the direction of a healthier and more sustainable paradigm. Better land management and interdependent integration with the land means better physical and spiritual health for our children, our communities, and our watershed. Currently, our children’s lives are saturated with commercialism and corporate marketing campaigns that create the disconnected hyper-reality that separates us from the land, God, and each other, and continues to perpetuate ecological destruction. Children are experiencing a paradigm which, aside from the ecological consequences, leads to a whole host of social, public, and spiritual health problems. Advertising and marketing to children has been associated with “eating disorders, sexualization, youth violence, family stress, and underage alcohol and tobacco use” (Linn in State of the World, 2010). Spending time outdoors and involving them in managing school acres in a sustainable way can help them learn a whole systems approach that can lead us all toward greater individual and spiritual health and wellbeing.
When I spoke with Annie Odean about her work against pesticide use on school grounds, she asked an eloquent rhetorical question:
“What’s so dangerous about a dandelion?”
Indeed, what might it look like to live in a world where dandelions grow and feed the bees who pollinate fruit trees and vegetable gardens? What if children tended the plants and built trellises and paths in school, and learned how to care for themselves and creation? Regardless of the claims of the hyper-real, the soil and the water and the ecosystems are necessary for human life, and paying attention to them and caring for them is part of what our tradition tells us it means to be human. The communities we live in and the people who live with us and share the land with us are what most of us really value, if we stop and think about it.
In recent months, I’ve been part of the volunteer sustainability team working with South Lane School District alongside parent club and student representatives. Together, we are building plans to reduce and eliminate herbicide use for each school site and creating a system for district wide communication. It is a monumental task that could never come to pass without the participation of everyone. This is a striking representation of a community working toward shalom. I am grateful for the opportunity to begin to lay the foundation for a more sustainable paradigm for my children and my watershed. I hope the work we do on Annie’s sustainable no-spray team instills in my children a sense of hope, that there is something they can do that is effective and spiritually edifying, even in a world that is full of disconnection and difficult challenges.
Adapted from a paper written for Theology and Ethic of the Land, Portland Seminary
Jennifer Powell’s bio: Just like you, I care about what is happening in our world. I believe we are all invited to participate in the unfolding of a grand story being written by God. God’s story is an epic story, full of plot twists and turns and miracles beyond what our imagination can conjure. The best thing about God’s story is that it ends well. It is a story bound in hope for all of creation. It is a story of redemptive transformation into love, mercy, justice, and peace for all things. It is a story we can believe in. I believe that, together with God and Creation, humanity can usher in a healthy, vibrant, beautiful world! To find out more, visit me at JenniferPowellCares.com. This is my blog site that will be up and running soon!