Needham’s Logic Skewed

n last week’s Record, Mike Needham wrote a Letter to Himself accusing environmentalists, students at this college and our College administration of a widespread lack of “rational inquiry” on issues surrounding our society’s relationship with the Earth. Reading the letter, I was amazed by two things. First was his willingness to bash environmentalism with confidence, even though he dramatically misunderstood the context within which his partially-informed statistics lie. Second was his willingness to insult a significant and well-informed section of this campus. I will address each of his misunderstandings in turn.

Needham first attacks organic food, labeling it a “feel good” strategy that reveals the hypocrisy of environmentalists. He cites a statistic from Center for Global Food Issues (CGFI), considered an ultra-conservative think-tank, which attributes the preservation of 15 million square miles of wilderness to high-yield, pesticide- and fertilizer-dependent agriculture. Both Needham and the CGFI fail to recognize the long-term dangers posed by this form of farming, including threats to undermine the capacity of our lands and waters to support future food production.

In conventional agriculture, heavy fertilizer application to single-crop fields is highly inefficient, as much of the nutrients wash off and pollute our waterways. In 2000, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), reported an 18000 sq. km. “hypoxic zone” in the Gulf of Mexico that supported virtually no marine life, threatening the thriving commercial fisheries in the area. “Principle sources,” the report stated, “are basins draining agricultural land.”

While Needham has demonstrated concern for birds through his argument against wind turbines, he ignores the 67 million birds estimated by Cornell University researchers to die each year from pesticide exposure. In comparison, wind turbines kill at approximately the same rate as large buildings: 0-2 per year. It is for these reasons that many choose to support a less destructive method of farming and believe it is needed to supply food into the future

Meanwhile, more food production is not the answer to hunger. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations notes, “The world has come to recognize that chronic hunger is not due to lack of food. It is due to poverty. In many countries there are abundant examples of hungry people in food surplus areas – people who lack adequate income or assets to purchase or produce enough food for themselves and their families.” Conventional farming requires expensive fertilizers and pesticides that entrap poor farmers in cycles of debt. In one Guatemalan case study, the World Neighbors humanitarian organization found that farmers escaped this debt through organic agriculture while achieving levels of production equivalent to that in the U.S.

In the U.S., a surprisingly similar situation exists. Profits in farming go to corporate-industrial suppliers like ADM and Cargill, not farmers. In 1950, 50 percent of the average dollar spent by an American on food went to the farmer; by 1997, it was down to just 7 percent. While Needham grasps the enormity of the problem facing food production and agricultural practices in the 21st century, he fails to understand the complex factors affecting the issues.

I agree with Needham that the energy needs of our country present a major challenge for our society in the face of uncertain fossil fuel supplies and climate change. His vision of nuclear energy as the solution, however, ignores the serious economic, technological and health concerns that have stopped nuclear plant development in all countries save China, Japan and possibly Iran. France, which he cites as the goal to aspire to (with four-fifths of its power from nuclear sources) currently has a moratorium on all nuclear plant construction. France may not be such a bad example to follow after all.

Needham then goes on to insult the current proposal for wind power on a parcel of Taconic Ridge land owned by the College, saying, “the emphasis of [sic] good intentions over rational inquiry is similarly present.” If Needham had spent any time following the debate surrounding this issue rather than adopting an ideologically-biased view, he might have instead learned the opposite of what he claims. In a public information session this fall attended by students, faculty, senior administrators and members of the regional community, four well-informed students from the Environmental Planning course presented recent research on local public opinion, noise, safety and economics surrounding the Berlin wind project (now available on www.berlinwind.org). Convinced by this data, our College administration is commissioning an even more detailed report from the U. Mass. Renewable Energy Research Labs.

Finally, I was amazed by Needham’s willingness to insult students, faculty and staff on this campus with blanket accusations of ignorance. Williams College is home to one of the first liberal-arts academic centers in the country to study environmental issues. What he calls for in his article – a conscientious, balanced study of human society’s relationship to nature – is exactly what courses in the Center for Environmental Studies do. Needham may also be surprised and interested to learn that one of our faculty, Professor Kai Lee, is Chair of the Committee on Long-Term Institutional Management of DOE Legacy Waste Sites. This committee consults the Department of Energy on the long-term storage of radioactive waste, a byproduct of nuclear power reactors.

As a concentrator myself, the necessity of integrating many disciplines while considering the long-term, macro impacts of actions and policies is the most important thing I have learned. I encourage Needham to apply these principles of academic inquiry and analysis in his future writings.