In the house I grew up in there was a crime that was truly considered unforgivable and my father, the purveyor of family justice and chief developer of family phrases, referred to it as “Me-Firsting”. Me-Firsting primarily took place at the dinner table but it also could show itself in other situations like waiting in lines or driving on city streets. At the dinner table, a Me-First action would involve grabbing food before everyone had sat down and, in particular, grabbing the best bits for yourself and taking more than your share of something that was being served. While my father had disdain for all sorts of bad behavior his disapproval for “Me-Firsting” seemed to be among the most serious. A child engaged in Me-Firsting not only had to put everything back (and get a serious tongue lashing and a dollop of disapproving looks) but they also were served last after everyone else. The lesson was clear; No one is so-important that their desires should come before anyone else’s. A person who held any notions that their own satisfaction was so important that they could forget about others was a person not to be trusted with any power at all. The goal was that everyone should share equally in both the joyful bounty of a roast chicken and the less-joyful bounty of slightly burnt Brussels sprouts. In my young mind it was clear that our families’ loathing of Me-Firsters was tied, in some way, to our passionate dislike for Kings, Tyrants, Pharaohs and Czars.
Although I think that this lesson is shared in most families and cultures, for me, the way that it expressed itself was definitely, in some way, tied to both our family history, as it was told, and our recent past as immigrants to this land. The history was one of a community constantly kicked around Europe/Asia on the whims of those more powerful. We were told stories by my relatives of the various times we were surrounded by others who, periodically, would decide that they NEEDED not ONLY the choicest bits… but ALL of the bits. It was reinforced that it was our place to stand against Me-Firsters wherever they popped up and that this went hand-in-hand with the notion that we should always strive to leave things better for our neighbors and for future generations. The heroes in our family were our Grandparents and Great-Grandparents who had put much on the line to fight for the rights of the “downtrodden-masses” and for better working conditions while scrimping and saving to make sure that their children and grandchildren would have a better world and more opportunities. Following along this path my parents’ generation was full of teachers engaged in civil rights work and a variety of other good causes and they too pushed the ideal that living within one’s means and giving back both to the broader community and to those not yet born was both required AND a good means of survival. The plant that robbed all of the nutrients from the soil, causing its neighbors to wilt, and hoarding them in its roots, giving nothing to its seeds, will soon be extinct.
Last week this was all brought to mind when I opened up the New York Times for my daily early-morning reading. The juxtaposition of two articles on the front page that morning made me think more about the problem of Me-Firsting in our current time. The first was an article about the current budget fight and the varying viewpoints regarding our current national debt. There was nothing new in the article, but what I thought was interesting was that all of the parties involved insist that what they are trying to do is put an end to too much Me-Firsting. Both sides feel that the other side is representing groups that are taking far too much for themselves at the expense of others and both say that they are motivated by the desire to do right by future generations. While I have my own opinions about what I think should be done, it made it clear that there is, at least verbally, some sort of consensus that taking more than one’s share and depriving future generations of a life that is as good or better than ours should not be acceptable policy. No-one will at admit to wanting their children or grandchildren left “high and dry” just so that we can have the choicest bits now. When it comes to other peoples’ children and grandchildren… well… at least we SAY that we are thinking of them as well.
The second article, which I read right after the first, created some minor cognitive dissonance. It was an article, which I later posted to our Facebook page, about the massive die-off that occurred this year in North America’s honey-bee population. In recent years bee-keepers have been wrestling with the fact that something “mysterious” has been regularly killing off large numbers of their bee colonies. It has not been unusual, just in the past decade, to lose 25% of one’s hives. This year it seems that well over 50% of the hives perished over the winter and, with bee populations so low, and no good news in site, many scientist feel as though we are now hitting a critical point where there are , in many parts of the country, not enough pollinators to properly pollinate our crops. While less bees might mean less bee stings it also means less of just about every crop that is grown in this country because bees are the primary pollinators for upwards of 90% of the plants we eat. For the past decade researchers around the world have been studying this awful phenomenon and it seems that several factors are at play and every single one of them is the result of the way we are growing our food. As we learn more about the bee die-off, which could have potentially disastrous consequences for us and for future generations, it is becoming clear that it is the result of some really egregious Me-Firsting on the part of our Agricultural System.
Encouraged by current agricultural policy we are creating a set of conditions that first weaken these buzzing allies of ours and then, it would seem, poisons them. Agriculture may have started as something of a symbiotic relationship with bees but now we are in the position of having become pure takers. We have eliminated the wild flowering plants that bloom throughout the seasons as we have increased the size of our fields and eliminated fencerows and groves. We have planted vast areas that only flower for a few weeks of the year and are then food-deserts for the bees we bring in to pollinate the crops. We have created plants that produce insecticides in their very cells, including the cells that become pollen and nectar, which are taken up by the bees and used to pollinate flowers and to feed their young. We have introduced new pesticides, tested primarily by the companies that will profit from their sale, that many in the scientific community seem to think are responsible for administering the final blow. We are, clearly, taking more than our fair share and yet there seems to be no major outcry and, in spite of the real severity of this crisis, no major steps are being made to remedy the situation. If 50% of our nation’s cell phone networks went down for even a few hours, something that would have some short-term economic consequences but would have no effect on future generations, there would be well publicized Congressional Hearings and changes WOULD be made. Sadly, the bees have no Facebook Page, Twitter Feed, or Large Financial Institution behind them and so until the crisis is more widely felt, it appears that little will be done to get ourselves off the dreaded “Me-First” list.
While it seems to me that there really is room for disagreement when it comes to how best to manage our country’s fiscal policy so that we leave things in better shape for our progeny (and those most-in-need now) this situation with the bees (and many of the other environmental problems we are facing) seems to be far more clear-cut. It is clear that we want a healthy bee population (if only for their contribution to baklava). It is clear that our taking more than our-fair-share is causing their decline. It is clear that without properly sharing creation with bees (and a host of other biota) we are setting ourselves up for disaster. It is clear that there are certain steps we can take that will be able to both provide us with food AND provide the bees with a healthy environment. It is clear that we all believe, at least in theory, that it is our responsibility to live within our means and leave this place in good shape for generations yet imagined. It is time to give ourselves some stern looks and a talking-to and make the necessary changes.
If you are interested in the article you can find it at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/29/science/earth/soaring-bee-deaths-in-2012-sound-alarm-on-malady.html
There is also a great film on the subject called: “Queen of the Sun”. I watched it on Netflix several months ago.
What can you do to help? Plant Flowers. Plant fruit trees. Tend some hives. Buy your food from farms (like ours) that leave habitat for the bees. Encourage your elected officials to push the EPA to further study and regulate pesticides and place a moratorium on the neonicitinoids that seem to one of the major culprits.
Easy Bean Farm is located 6 miles east of Milan in the Chippewa River Watershed of west-central Minnesota. The Chippewa, as it makes its way toward the Minnesota, passes through our 120 acres of prairie, woodland, pasture and cropland. Our farm, in addition to being our home and place of work, also is home to a myriad of “wild” plant and animal life.
Songbirds nest in the groves, frogs assemble their choir at the edge of the pond, fish swim the river, Monarch butterflies rest on the milkweed, deer hide in the tall prairie grass, and the soil is crawling with worms, insects and microbes. As we manage this land we attempt to take all of its inhabitants into consideration.
The profitability of our farm is measured as much by the quality of the water, the health of the soil, and the diversity of its ecosystem, as by the dollars it brings us. As we farm it is our goal to produce agricultural systems that are as stable and diverse as the natural ecosystem they replace. This has led us to plant over 20 acres of trees, restore native prairie species, farm all of our cropland organically, and incorporate passive solar design in restoring our 100 year old house.