The Age of Consequences: A Chronicle of Concern and Hope
By Courtney White
261 pp., hardcover. Counterpoint Press – Jan. 2015. $21.99.
"I consider myself to be a professional daydreamer,” reads the opening line of Courtney White’s Internet bio page. And indeed, White—a fine, imaginative thinker and writer who happens to be related to the legendary William Faulkner—has done a prodigious amount of fruitful daydreaming about the future. This dreaming isn’t of the blithely pie-in-the-sky variety, though. The term White has coined for the era in which humanity now lives, the “Age of Consequences,” will have an ominous ring to many ears. Yet his book of the same title brims with such well-founded optimism that potential readers who yearn for the “hope” promised by its subtitle, A Chronicle of Concern and Hope, won’t be disappointed.
White is very good. Even apart from the stellar literary quality of his books and articles, he has vast amounts of firsthand experience in the things about which he writes. A longtime rancher and conservation activist, he has worked extensively to develop and promote nature-based approaches to solving environmental problems. Some examples include using cattle (often assumed to be a menace to land health) to restore desertified landscapes; devising rainwater collection systems that, even in desert settings, can meet a household’s water needs; and harnessing the natural process of photosynthesis to mitigate climate change. In his writings, talks and activism, White strives to show how small, practical steps like these, rather than ever-more-grandiose advancements in industrial-age technology, are the real answer to meeting the calamities before us.
The pieces collected in The Age of Consequences were all written for the millennial generation, to which White’s two children belong. White first started writing them on Earth Day 2008, driven by a need to preserve some record of today’s issues for posterity. “I felt an obligation,” he explains in the book’s prologue, “to chronicle the flow of current events in case it might be useful, now or later.” Though it may not have been within his power to undo, or even atone for, the damage his generation had done, he was determined to at least supply future generations with an earnest answer as to why the harm was allowed to occur. He hoped, of course, that he would also be telling of how it was successfully addressed, though he knew that time would be the judge on that score.
The Age of Consequences is divided into two sections, the first one dealing with the threats facing us and the second with potential solutions. Both parts consist mainly of personal narrative essays inspired by White’s musings, observations and travels. These writings are informative, involving, revealing—and particularly poignant in the way they relate what White sees as the ills of industrialism to struggles he’s contended with in his own life. (A case in point is his recollection of a road trip he and his wife took to obtain treatment for her cancer, during which he reflected on the poisonous legacy left by today’s alleged technological miracles.)
In addition to the insidious toll of pollution on human health, White also worries deeply about climate change, overpopulation and resource depletion. And, in keeping with the conventional wisdom among those who truly comprehend our predicament, he sees the main barriers to meaningful action on any of these fronts as psychological rather than intellectual. We’re so used to thinking in terms of techno-fixes that almost no one recognizes what a treasury the myriad of small-scale, low-tech and often ancient solutions already being pursued by people around the world actually is. Thus, believes White, a dramatic shift in our collective thinking is required if we are to give ourselves the best possible chance of weathering our crises.
The solutions portion of the book contains many examples of this localized, appropriate-tech approach to meeting environmental crises. They’re drawn largely from White’s work with the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit he co-founded in 1997. Based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where White lives, the Coalition works to promote “ecological, economic and social health on western landscapes.”* It has been involved in innovative efforts to restore landscapes damaged by overgrazing, fire suppression, logging, hazardous waste contamination and other blights.
One of the Coalition’s most rousing success stories is a pioneering mine reclamation project undertaken in 1999. It involved turning cattle out to a badly contaminated tailing on an abandoned copper mine. The method was to cover the ground with hay for the cattle to eat and grass seed for them to work into the dirt with their hooves as they grazed. The animals’ manure acted as fertilizer. This approach, which White calls the "poop-n-stomp" method, was the brainchild of rancher Terry Wheeler, whom White hired to lead the project. The experiment was a great success, amply demonstrating the superior efficacy and cost-effectiveness of poop-n-stomp over standard practices in mine reclamation.
White also sees vast potential in “carbon ranching,” or the use of trees and other green plants to sequester CO2 into the ground. While carbon ranching is often billed as a means of combating climate change, White shows how its benefits extend well beyond that. He explains how crucial the carbon exuded underground by plants is to creating healthy, microbially active topsoil, as well as how the humus that forms with increased soil carbon concentrations can help alleviate water scarcity due to its remarkable water retention ability. White believes carbon ranching can be a powerful tool for addressing climate change, but he knows it isn’t a panacea. It needs to be accompanied by a drastic curtailment in fossil fuel burning.
Being a longtime resident of a desert state, White is particularly attuned to issues of water depletion. He’s a big fan of rainwater collection systems, not just because they help slow the exhaustion of aquifers, but also because they can be a great help to one’s finances in places where water is expensive. Though this topic isn’t explored in much detail in this book, it is in another book by White titled Two Percent Solutions for the Planet (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015), which tells of how sustainability advocate and author Brad Lancaster became self-reliant in water despite living in the desert climate of Tucson, Arizona.
As with rainwater harvesting, the subject of organic farming methods, and whether they can sustain a projected world population of 9 billion by 2050, is something discussed at greater length in Two Percent Solutions than in this book. Still, White hits on the salient points here and supports them with a well-chosen case study: an innovative no-till crimper roller developed by the Rodale Institute and the University of Pennsylvania. Like other no-till farming implements, the crimper roller preserves the health of the soil by leaving it undisturbed. However, it also has the virtue of eliminating the need for pesticides and herbicides by reducing the cover crop, with all its pests and diseases, to mulch as it seeds. White thinks this brilliant invention may well revolutionize agriculture.
The Age of Consequences is so packed with ideas that this review only skims the surface. Some key topics not yet mentioned include the concept of “land literacy,” Richard Louv’s notion of “nature-deficit disorder,” the fallacies inherent in the ideal of pristineness and the many emerging opportunities for small farms to prosper through direct sales. White also tells inspiring accounts of how he and his colleagues at Quivira have used community partnerships to bridge gaps among ranchers, conservationists, scientists and public land managers—groups that have long been notoriously at odds despite their common interest in land health.
The book’s one significant flaw is that it isn’t indexed. A work as meaty as this one cries out for an index, so it’s puzzling that nobody saw fit to create one. This omission is, however, my sole disappointment with the book.
Several weeks ago, White announced that he’s embarking on a new journey. After 19 years with the Quivira Coalition, he’s stepped down from his position there to devote full time to writing and raising awareness about humanity’s situation. As I had a chance to see for myself recently—when he came to speak in my town, Seattle—he’s filled with energy and ideas for future books. I hope his new move proves a fortuitous one, and I’ll happily await whatever writing comes of it.
* “About Us,” Quivira Coalition, http://quiviracoalition.org/About_Us/index.html (accessed Jan. 23, 2016).