It’s an interconnected planet. We know this by now. We’re all locally-minded adults here. We’re aware that we’re extremely rustic and recent residents of a vast, expanding universe and all that. That we humans appeared late on December 31 of the Big Calendar. And that our own backyard is, Cosmically-speaking, roughly the size of the dust on one grain of sand.
Only all that’s easy to forget when faced with Whole Foods and Costco. In fact, immersed in acre-long aisles of everything from everywhere, after a while it’s almost impossible to remember. Even when you come home to an evening of goat-milking and egg gathering, as I do, every single day.
But it was, ironically, what felt like long-distance travel, that helped me recall the above universal and local realities over the last few weeks. Shows how apt that term “relativity” is. What happened was I recently found myself on a plane to Chile, chasing sustainability lessons and the incidental hot springs, and my contorted body couldn’t help noticing that it took a long time to get there. Nearly 36 hours by plane, bus, taxi, more bus, and a short walk to get to the region that anyone with eyes can see is where our winter produce comes from in North America in the Globalization Era. (There really is no yoga like “coiled up in an overnight trans-continental coach seat” yoga. They don’t even bother to show you that video screen map featuring “distance to destination” on this route. No doubt because it’s been determined to lead to demands for parachutes.)
Chile, in fact, that giant, pesticide-laced industrialized farm-, tree-, and fish-stand (any season, any crop you want, like a 1970s pill pusher opening a briefcase full of colorful death) is essentially one big California, without the environmental protection agency. They even call the prime vineyard part of the country the Central Valley, naming it perhaps unintentionally after the pesticide tragedy of California’s eponymous valley (which provides our monoculture service during the North American summer), and a place once so thick with wildlife that the Spaniards said the birds, when startled, could blacken the sun, and now so rank with intruding saltwater from over-pumped groundwater that more and more fertilizer is needed to keep the GMO monoculture “growing”. It’s also so thick with pesticide smog that it’s causing the redwoods inland in the Sierras to stop growing at their normal rates.
Indeed, Chile’s fertile Central Valley has already acquired its Northern Hemisphere cousin’s basting of smog layered over the scenery, too. Ah, the vision of blind progress. Often you can’t see the spine of the Andes less than a fifty miles to the East. In fact, plopped down in Chile’s toxic breadbasket, and glancing through the average mega-mono-corporate-crop-row to the nearly-invisible mountains, you could be excused for guessing you were in Fresno County. Unless, of course, you’re Chilean, in which case you’ll probably guess you’re in Chile.
“Follow the money,” of course, is something any journalist knows to do. (That and “try to explain things to your editor so that he or she doesn’t feel dumber than you are.”) The fact is, Chile is the go-to place for all the Earth-destroying practices being called off at the last second nearly everywhere else: native tree pulping, fish farming (the crap salmon is everywhere here -â€“ slapped cheap and wrong-looking in every fruit market: they appear just like fish at first glance, unless you’ve seen a real salmon and know what the color of the flesh is supposed to look like), giant hydro-dam-induced river plugging, right wing billionaire candidates.
Globalization, in short, is the Chilean economy, and let’s be honest, Chileans seem to be doing very well on its diet, for now. Throughout my stay in the friendly country, taxi drivers and restaurateurs kept given me price breaks, in sympathy for the struggling American import economy and currency.
Every inch of cultivatable land (and former forest) in Chile appears to have been altered for industrial agriculture. Reminds me of a bumper sticker I saw recently on an Earth-destroying Mitsubishi: “The Earth Bats Last.” In much of Chile, in fact, if the land is not protected, irrevocably poisoned, alpine or desert, chances are it’s a tree farm, a vineyard or a fruit export factory. Too bad for the spectacular, 200-million-year-old Native araucaria tree, whose territory has been almost completely transformed since the Industrial Revolution for the first time since the Jurassic Period, and not for the better. And too bad for us.
You feel like you’re at Home Depot already when you look at an orderly, monolithic Chilean tree farm hillside. And you nearly are. Most of the pine and eucalyptus end up on container ships. Chile is now the world’s third largest chip exporter, and fourth in pulp. (A terrific, if haunting coffee table book about McMonoculture Age, by the way, is called Fatal Harvest.)
Busing through Chile’s Central Valley and neighboring Big Ag regions, I could fall asleep admiring horizon-to-horizon vineyards, orchards or monoculture farms (to a degree that I only previously saw with Dole and Chiquita banana plantations in Guatemala and Honduras, and not even in California), and then wake up from my nap an hour later to the same landscape. It’s a Big Country. Astonishingly big. I traveled for something like 800 miles and still had barely visited one region in the long finger of a land mass. For the entire astonishing half-a-day on that bus, I just couldn’t believe that it’s cost-effective to ship wine and apples and wood chips this far â€“- all the way to my New Mexico grocery and home improvement stores.
But it is. The supermarket produce aisle in Chile looks just like ours does back in the States because it is the same produce. Exactly the same. (Checked your fruit labels lately?) I was advised by a Chilean hotelier to buy produce from street vendors in rural parts of the country because “they can’t afford to spray.”
Everything in life is a matter of perspective, and for all my preaching, at live events and in my books, radio work and journalism, I didn’t viscerally realize until I shipped myself personally just how far a Chilean tomato has to go to get to New Mexico, just as I saw that most Chileans don’t realize that they live in a country that doesn’t produce a lot of the world’s top lacrosse payers.
Is this likely to change anytime soon (not the lacrosse prowess, but the Earth-destroying agricultural practices)? Ya know, given that the Copenhagen Climate Treaty talks were going on while I was observing all this agricultural tragedy, and that we’re all co-settlers on this tiny planet. A lot of the answer to that depends on American consumer demands -â€“ and yes, I recognize that this is the same answer Latin American drug lords give when asked if they’re selling an evil product: “stop buying it if you don’t like it.” If we insist on living locally, the market will respond.
On the Chilean end, vis-Ã -vis poor land management, reckless pesticide use, and a pervasive short-term profit mentality, I asked one of my hotel owners, who’s been in business for 18 years in a country where I saw exactly one windmill and one solar panel, if the tremendous foreign currency lured by the truly otherworldly, beyond-world-class beauty of Chile’s remaining wild areas could be an influence in mitigating practices like horrible hydro-dam projects, tree- and fish-farming and genetically-modified monoculture. He shook his head solemnly without a moment’s pause. “We didn’t even have a tourism department in the government until a few years ago,” he said. “And even now it’s a minor, do-nothing division. This country, at the top, is about business, business, and then more business.”
I wanted to say, “Isn’t tourism Big Business?” but I’ve been down this route before, from Guatemala to Rwanda. Indeed, to his credit, I guess, (for lack of a better word, and a literal one, in the case of the temporary boon to Chile’s economy), the right-wing tycoon candidate in recent Chilean Presidential elections (a finance baron in addition to the owner of LAN Chile airline), Sebastian Pinera, who got the most votes in the first round of the vote that took place while I was in the country (the runoff is in January), is unapologetic in his support of a Chilean economic model that continues to be basically a factory for every industrial, agricultural and energy practice that, again, is being justly abandoned nearly everywhere else on this small large planet.
And a lot of Chile, psychically is like that â€“- it’s a throwback to the way things were in the 1970s, from politician haircuts to gender equality. You can tell by the billboard mug shots which political view each candidate holds â€“- probably from their diets. The Communist fellow looked like Einstein, the middle-of the-road oligarch looked like a senile Berlusconi, and Pinera (and especially his regional Diputado candidates) looked like the kind of people who weren’t overly thrilled to see the Pinochet era end.
As a result of this horror show that started and ended my trip in bus rides through poison agriculture, this twisted Saruman-like messing with the planet’s gift-bearing ability, I found myself involuntarily (and gratefully) reinvigorated in my effort to live as locally as possible (as well as exhausted, as always, from my “vacation”). And while we’re on the subject of travel on said small large planet, I’ve already expressed the fervent wish in earlier Dispatches that we as a species get with the algae research so my rejuvenated carbon-neutral ethic doesn’t have to come at the cost of burning hundreds of gallons jet fuel. Today I’d like to add, lest anyone think this is a long-shot: Boeing, whose executives rightly don’t care what goes into 767 engines as long as I keep flying to Santiago to rant about monoculture, is a significant contributor to Arizona State University’s Laboratory for Algae Research & Biotechnology. They want it to work. So do I.
Back in Chile, lest I was inclined to forget what was going on outside my bus window, that nation’s agribusinessfolk are at least open about how they live and work. Framing more vineyards and GMO soy fields than you thought feasible on one planet, pretty much every billboard from Santiago to Patagonia offers the best pesticides and fertilizers for ensuring that spanking fresh, extremely durable (for shipping), petroleum-soaked grapes, garlic and lettuce make it to a supermarket -â€“ even a crunchy one -â€“ near you, just before what once would have been called “ripeness.” And the Chilean Agro/Industrial Complex dreams of damming about a river a week in an effort to satisfy our demand.
At some point during my visit, I started photographing these joyously ignorant-of-ramifications billboards (my favorite one begins this Dispatch). This had the even more disturbing side effect of reminding me that for all my awesome mileage covered, I was still not far enough: Chile might be isolated enough to allow dictatorships to pillage for nearly two decades, and distant enough from my credit card’s HQ that car rental companies can still be unacceptably dishonest; it might be so far away from home that the drains empty in the opposite direction and The Simpsons is only on once per day, but those bastards at Clear Channel nonetheless dominate the billboards almost to the South Pole.
Meanwhile, when bus routes weren’t available in my Chilean monocultural jaunt, I rented some sort of toy Suzuki that got more miles per gallon than it had horsepower. Drove it and returned it full without having to fill it up. Seems to run on oxygen, making my dinner wine the biggest petroleum user in my day. That’s the up side. The down side is that the glorified Flintstones-mobile found even small pebbles too much for its clearance, and I turned the thing in with an undercarriage that looked like a used target at a firing range. But I did get to see that off the main roads, family farming, at least, still exists in Chile. So that’s cause for optimism. Maybe some sort of organic movement can gain a foothold that way. If only the locals knew what we Gringos were willing to pay for non-poison broccoli.
Also by way of optimism, I should mention that the only grassroots political statement I saw in my entire three-and-a-half-weeks in-country (and I saw it a lot), was a bumper sticker reading, “Patagonia sin represas,” which is the slogan for anti-hydro-dam activists in Chile’s south. The cautionary tale here, though, is something I learned when I lived in Northern California: a progressive bumper sticker campaign does not necessarily a national political imperative make.
As my trip wound down with my mind fully reset to “local,” I decided to go, when it came to gifts, with the traditional woodwork of the Mapuche indigenous craftspeople rather than the reasonably priced and often quite delicious Chilean wine. Although you can say I brought back elements of Chilean viticulture, since I did accrue some of the spring crop’s pesticide spray residue during my long bus ride back to Santiago (note, a week after returning home: I feel like I’ve grown two feet, and have a fine oak finish). But those cherries off the street I bought on my hotelier’s recommendation? Juicy. Scrumptious. I’m still dreaming about them. Might have to pick some up next time I’m near a Safeway.
I guess I could have kept riding north on the bus until I found myself in (for-better-or-for-worse) more traditionally-farming Peru or Bolivia (although the latter has plenty of mega mines, and also looks to be the source of something like 70% of the world’s lithium, necessary for the next generation batteries that will presumably be powering our cars-of-the future).
But how far could I really have gone to avoid the reality that “apples” and “fish” grown in places like Chile keep Americans fed in winter in the Globalization Era? I mean, I’m limited by gravity. And even if I wasn’t, it would have taken the Apollo Astronauts 850,000 years just to reach Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our own, according to The Cosmic Mind-Blowing Book, a weird little tome by Neil McAleer that I found at one of my hotels in Chile -â€“ weird little books being another reason to travel on algae.
But that weird little book schooled me that, for all my daydreaming, I’m likely marooned on this lovely, threatened, savable planet for a while like the rest of us, hoping to find a way for half a dozen billion people to sustainably, healthfully relearn how to live locally. One activist group in Copenhagen has a suggestion: turn the world’s industrialized farms organic. That could, the folks at Tck Tck Tck say, sequester 40% of current greenhouse gas emissions. Sounds worth a try. For now, I’m back at the Funky Butte Ranch, living off my goats’ milk and cheese, and my ducks’ eggs. Pesticide- and largely Chilean produce-free.
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