Growing up on an apple orchard in rural Washington State and then going to a university such as Gonzaga can be quite the culture shock. Going from a small, public high school to a private, Jesuit university in the middle of Spokane feels like two drastically different worlds and finding my place in the middle of them has been a challenge. Being an Environmental Studies major, I learned in many different classes the problems that agriculture cause in our environment. The very word “mono-culture” was the embodiment of evil and I’m sure we have all sat around and talked about how we need to diversify our farms and break up the large scale farms that pump pollutants into our ecosystems. Now that is all well and good but I never really placed those lessons back on my own family farm. In my mind, we were too small of a farm, too insignificant to contribute that much to the global ecological disaster. How wrong I was.
As many of you future students have experienced, there is a project that involves a “carbon footprint calculator” that determines through various questions what your family’s own carbon footprint is based on their lifestyle choices. My total carbon output was quite high, actually very high. Like 147 tons of carbon dioxide every single year. That’s a lot, and the actual number is probably much higher. The footprint calculator that we used for the purpose of our project did not measure many carbon-producing factors that we contribute to on the farm. For example: our use of petroleum-based fertilizer every single spring. The pesticides that we use on our apples multiples times a year and the amount of water that goes into the orchard in a single growing season. Suddenly I realized that my family used the same carbon-intense methods that we had been learning about at Gonzaga. This giant, evil corporation polluting and destroying the land with enthusiasm that I had pictured in my mind suddenly changed its form. No more did Monsanto hover above us, the evil became my house, my family and the tractors and other equipment we use on a daily basis.
This all came at a unique time in my career at Gonzaga. In Professor Henning’s class, we were talking about what our own environmental ethic was and how we can expand our direct duties to the various organisms in our world. I was in a dilemma. How am I am able to accurately and sufficiently say that sentient beings deserve direct duties if I am directly contributing to the destruction of the local ecosystem through pesticide and fertilizer runoff? Before DDT was banned for agricultural use in the US, every farmer in
my valley used the pesticide because it was cheap and effective. DDT not only killed the pest insects, it also killed off the birds and amphibians in the area as their eggs’ shells became weak and prone to damage. I could not defend the use of these chemicals because I thought that sentient beings deserved direct duties. These animals were killed because we wanted a couple pests gone from the apples, and the other egg-laying creatures were just caught in the crossfire. Anthropocentrism at its finest. I had dreams of taking over the family farm one day, but how could I knowing what our farm did to the natural world around us?
The farm kid within me fought back, however. My father is a second generation farmer, on a small plot of land doing what he knows how to do in order to provide for his family. The farming methods and use of pesticides is how Dad make the best product for market. Being a small farm with a relatively small amount of land, we have to use the quality over quantity method. That means doing some things, like spaying pesticides, that are harmful to the environment but are necessary for our farm. Another thought rang through my head that said, “why should we change what do on the farm for an ecosystem that is full of other farms in the first place?” All around our valley is orchards. All use the same practices and are just trying to put food on the table same as everybody else, same as the animals that live around and in the orchard. What ecosystem is there to destroy? It is all just orchard anyway and I would rather have that over urban sprawl any day.
Here’s the kicker, I still don’t know what to do with my dilemma. I struggle with keeping the ethic that I found in Environmental Ethics (eco-centrist) and accepting the fact that my family contributes to hurting that ecosystem. How can I say that my family should change their whole life just for the sake of the ecosystem around them when it has been so drastically changed already? On the other hand, the degradation of the environment could have been avoided in the first place had other farming practices been implemented long ago, and if I won’t implement or advocate for change, who will?