Food for Thought … A Conversation with Michael McGrath

“If you think people will kill each other over oil, think what they’ll do over dinner.”

The following are statements made by Michael McGrath, Manager of Land Use Planning & Preservation at the Delaware Department of Agriculture, regarding his observations on land use around Middletown and our responsibility for the gifts in our own backyard:

“According to objective evidence based on what we know about soils today, The Levels farmland is considered to have some of the best soils in the world. These soils are comparable to those in Ukraine, Lancaster County, Pa., and the Imperial Valley in California. The Levels farmland is included among these as fantastic-yielding soils, among a handful of the best in the world.

“There is a historical significance to the places and farms that we’re seeing destroyed. The most striking thing to see is bulldozers piling dirt up, adding insult to injury – soil excess. It seems criminal:

“Cyrus McCormick [an American inventor and manufacturer who developed a mechanical harvester in 1831] came to Middletown to test his new machines for harvesting wheat because The Levels had some of the best farmers and the best farms.

“The houses around Middletown – the mansions that survive, now sitting in the middle of auto malls – serve as testimony to the wealth gained from wheat and peaches.

“The piling up of dirt recalls the piles of dead buffalo in the 19th century. The difference here, more critical, is that then there were a few buffalo left, still breathing and able to reproduce. The soil cannot be replaced.

“A story goes that Will Rogers in 1925 was asked why he was investing in California land. His answer: ‘They ain’t makin’ it anymore.’

“Land is a finite resource. The loss of one acre of land on The Levels is not comparable to one acre of forest clearing. You’ll have to clear more land of forest to equal comparable quality land in Middletown. The best soils in the world can’t compare. It’s not a one-to-one ratio.

“The ancients had enough sense to build on the ruins of what was there, like Pompeii, for example.

“Due to the earth shaping, all that top soil doesn’t go back there. Developers sell the surplus. That’s what’s in the bags in Home Depot – that topsoil.

“One of the sad things is to turn the land into one-quarter acre lawns. The lawns don’t produce anything except runoff. Small engines produce pollution – leaf blowers, lawn mowers, boat motors, and the like.

“Thirty years ago, as a professional planner, I encountered a sort of life-changing experience: Dr. Bruce Edward Tonn [now a political science professor at the University of Tennessee, director of the Urban and Regional Planning Program, chair of the Urban Studies Program, and senior researcher of the Environmental Sciences Division at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory] was asked to create a twenty-year plan. Now, mostly, we don’t go any farther than creating five-year plans. Tonn recognized that we should do five-hundred-year planning. He is an expert on really long-range planning. The nuclear regulatory commission was interested in having him create this plan because nuclear waste has such a long half-life.”

When contacted recently, Dr. Tonn said, “I did publish a paper a while ago entitled 500-year planning and have since upped that to 1000 years!” –Oak Ridge National Lab

“What are the things that can happen, that can seriously jeopardize the existence of the human race? Five things: Five things that can kill us off. This is serious: This is the human race. Among those five are water and soil loss – not just erosion, but soil loss. The majority had to do with agriculture.

“When the energy crisis goes south you can stay home. Without food you die.

“This place in our own backyard – the best in the world – here in Middletown – we’ve been given responsibility for. It affects the future of the human race.

“Jared Diamond wrote a book some years ago: Guns, Germs and Steel. Now he has written another book, Collapse. This book challenges how the theory works out in terms of how civilization disappeared: What made civilizations disappear and what made them succeed (an agricultural, botanical, biological thesis). Sustainable environmentalism boiled down to soil loss stemming from deforestation.” [In his 2005 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared M. Diamond, UCLA professor of geography, lists the five reasons as natural climate changes, manmade environmental damage, reduced support from neighbors or trading partners. hostile neighbors, and how societies identify and respond to environmental problems. Diamond suggests that the fifth factor, society’s own reaction, is the most significant in whether a society will continue or collapse, and asks, how can we, as a society, address these concerns and devise and act on solutions that sustain us?]

“The Mayans disappeared before the Europeans brought small pox to the Americas due to deforestation and water mismanagement.

“In Japan, in the 1200s and 1300s, the Shoguns passed a law executing anyone cutting down trees. Today Japan is the most densely populated and the most densely forested, having the highest percentage of the developed countries. Japanese houses are built with very little wood. Their wood consumption comes from cultivated wood. This practice is born of seven hundred years of tradition.

“It gets to the fundamentals of how we eat and how we drink. The Mayans were a very advanced civilization. They used advanced mathematics, some of which we still may not know. It draws it all into a warning for modern civilization: The Mayans were smart, yet they killed themselves by abusing the environment.

“In terms of agriculture production, Delaware is becoming more strategic politically:

“Dependence on imported food is risky. It is costly because it is expensive to grow food in California, Texas, and other places far from home; that is, it is expensive to transport it.

“Do we want to turn over our fundamental food production to third-world countries? If you think people will kill each other over oil, think what they’ll do over dinner.

“In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries cities were built in locations strategic as agricultural and transport processing centers.

“After World War II, when people moved to the suburbs, the first thing to go was the best land in the U.S. Suburbanization started spilling out of the cities, according to a study from the American Farmland Trust which shows that now sprawl is even worse.

“Choices become less and less palatable, politically and taste wise.

“What do we have to be to be sustainable? We have to conduct our use so we don’t diminish for the next generation: Do no harm.

“It’ll be gone. You can’t have any percentage of loss without being accompanied by considerable injustice: Soil, air, oil, human justice – a fair share, a just future.

“Who gets hurt by rising gasoline prices? It’s not the person who can afford to buy and drive the six thousand pound SUV; it’s the little person who has to drive to work every day.

“It’s all about choices. Politics is driven by how we spend our money.

“Students need to be acquainted with the issues of sustainability. How do we test those choices? How do they play out on the ground? We have to test the personal costs that are implied, such as going to the dumpster versus working with compost, walking or biking rather than driving. We have to test that the costs we incur are paid back in some kind of benefit.”

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The great, new population influx into the M.O.T. area brings with it a certain new vitality, new ideas and new resources. Newcomers find Middletown-Odessa-Townsend a great place to raise their families, and they need places to live. Scientists say all of us must decide, therefore, what we want, what we are willing to trade off, how we can compromise and yet be kind to our environment. It should be noted that new home builders in the area were contacted in this regard to discuss for this story their new home development and community green space planning, but they declined comment.   –C.C.

I published this story in Middletown (Del.) Life Magazine, under my byline, Carol Child, Winter 2007.