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This was another lecture with a big picture claim to solving humanity’s long term problems but it soon defined itself into an overly narrow approach which gives little more than short term answers and quick political fixes. A humorous aside, this was my first lecture ever where more than one panel member claimed to be a “boomer” and therefore to be respected as an elder with a long history of personal experience. To those of us who clearly remember WW II a boomer is still a callow youth. Oh, well…

It was a stellar cast on the stage: Dr. Sara Scherr, President & CEO, Ecoagriculture Partners was the main speaker but the panelist/discussants also got several minutes of opening remarks: Claire Kremen, Associate Professor, ESPM, UC Berkeley; Dr. Tom Tomich, Director, UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute; Dr. Nathan Sayre, Professor, Environmental and Human Geography, UC Berkeley with A.G. Kawamura, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. These people were all brilliant in their own way and very successful with awards aplenty and even a MacArthur Fellowship to boast. All the same, I without any claim to even modest authority felt they totally missed the point of long term sustainability. Here’s my reasons.
When one is talking about all humanity and the health and survival of the species it is necessary to look beyond the current problems and beyond the time horizon of one’s personal experience and the life expectancy of their grandchildren. That was the time frame one panelist mentioned. These people were all involved in the agriculture industry in the broadest sense and at one time the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago was alluded to; so one would expect their time depth to be expanded at least partially, at some level, into that grander time depth.

During the two and a half hour event there was occasionally the mention of the year 2050 but that was usually in conjunction with the UN population projections leveling off at 9 billion people. Almost every discussion was formed into the nebulous but not too distant future of five to twenty years. There was never a mention of a major war and its effects upon food creation or distribution but only an acknowledgment of the extremely complex interaction of known and unknown and unknowable and unmeasured and unmeasurable factors. They didn’t want to acknowledge it but these things were probably beyond their ability to analyze reliably even in the limited terms they confined themselves to.
I didn’t even attempt to ask a question of the panel because my thoughts are two orders of magnitude outside of the frame of their discussion. I think in terms of getting humanity through 100, 1,000 and 10,000 years in a sustainable survival mode and they were thinking in terms of 10 years of living as we now do and maintaining a modern world of wealth and surplus.
The natural variability of weather and water supply was discussed and California is presently blessed with predictably good weather and because of the water distribution system put in place by the panelists’ ancestors a consistent supply of water. Consistent water at least until the snow pack melts off permanently in the not too distant future. No mention was made of the Himalaya snow pack and the fact that a huge percentage of the world’s food supply is dependent upon that reliably smoothed out source of water. These panelists are aware of these problems but even so there was little mention of CO2 as the cause. There was considerable thought of sequestering CO2 using agricultural plants to soak up the gas and put it back into the ground. They agreed that the current CO2 sequestration in underground pockets of sandstone was mostly talk with little concrete action but seemed to think plowing it a few inches back into the soil would work.
I am greatly saddened by this lecture because these are some of the most intelligent and best informed people on the planet in the most progressive state anywhere in the world with considerable money and flexibility and political will and experience but by my way of seeing these things they are totally blind and the answers they propose even if fully implemented wouldn’t make a bit of difference in a short while – like a hundred years.
I have been trying to think of how to make longer time frames more concrete so people can get a better grasp. The use of various buildings we are all familiar with seems to make some sense. For example, here on UC Berkeley campus some of the newer looking classical buildings like the Sather Tower are about 100 years old and the modern student union building is 50 years old. Berkeley is a new city so we don’t have any old buildings but everyone is familiar with the White House in Washington DC which is 210 years old and the St. Peter’s Basilica Vatican in Rome is 400 years old, Chartres Cathedral is almost 1,000 years old and for a really big old building there is Hagia Sophia completed in 537. The Pantheon in Rome was done in 126 so it is about 2,000 years old and in continuous use. Of course the biggest old “buildings” are the pyramids of Egypt at almost 5,000 years old.

I go through the rather tedious comparison to well known buildings to illustrate  just how paltry these modern agricultural big thinkers’ thoughts are compared to the human time frame which they claim to be considering for sustainability. These modern big thinkers are thinking ten to fifty years whereas the pyramid builders were obviously considering a much longer time frame and if their constructions hadn’t been stripped for the construction of modern Cairo they would still be in excellent condition at age 5,000. It would have been absurd to bring up these time based problems in this venue so I didn’t.

ChronoZoom will help modern people better position themselves in time.