The headline in EOS (earth and space science news) brought memory of an event ‘way back in the ’70s, when, on a warm summer day, my phone delivered a barrage of calls from outraged mothers. I was chair of a local clean air & water citizens’ group. The mothers had taken their little children to the pond in the city park, only to watch as the fish rose to the surface upside down, gasping, dying, and smelling. The distressed mothers thought the city had poisoned the fish, and concluded that I should fix the problem. Scientists in our group analyzed the water and recommended a solution.
The same thing—without mothers and phone calls—happens every summer to an area of ocean along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. In 2015, the death zone area is 10,400 square miles in area, not a half-acre city pond. Fertilizer runs off the land, stimulating growth of algae in the water. When the excess algae die, decay of the algae consumes the oxygen in the water, and the fish die. In the city park, the fertilizer came from the bowl-shaped lawn that sloped down into the pond. And also from the discharges of too many domestic ducks. The fertilizer flowing into the Gulf of Mexico comes from farms and gardens–some in Louisiana but most in a 22-state area that stretches upstream to Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and even the great plains—all of which drain into the Mississippi river or its tributaries.
Data from the U.S. Geological Survey show that the total nitrogen load delivered to the gulf varies roughly between 1 and 2 million metric tons annually, while the total phosphorous load varies around 150,000 metric tons. That’s something to think about while you spread commercial fertilizer on your lawn, which generates runoff like a farm.
So what happened?
For the city pond, our group recommended construction of a ring around the pond to catch the fertilizer-laden runoff water. Stored runoff could be used to water the lawn. Clean water could be added to the pond rather than sprinkled on the grass. Our second recommendation was to limit the duck population. The city did build a concave sidewalk around the pond, but without a drain and water storage. Thus, the runoff spilled over the sidewalk into the pond during the lawn-watering and summer rains, while creating a pavement of ice from winter snows.
For the dead zone in the Gulf, a task force of scientists, officials of state and federal agencies, and tribes developed a detailed action plan in 2008—how to reduce the nutrient runoff. In 2013 the task force reported “developing strategies” and “sponsoring science forums” and looking forward to “accelerating our progress.” By 2015 nothing had happened except “research into what should have been done,” yet another assessment, and continuing measurements of the dead zone by scientists whose funding is now in jeopardy.
Why can’t we simply fix it?
Why can’t we make social decisions and take actions?
Why can’t a city stop fertilizing its beloved pond; why can’t a nation stop fertilizing its coastline to death? Complexity offers an understanding the social problem behind the physical problems.
Even a small town can show emergent behaviors—characteristics of the whole that are different from the characteristics of any one of its members. Mothers want a pond with live fish, but they also want ducks—so much so as to give the kiddies ducklings at Easter only to dump the grown quackers in the city pond later when things get messy underfoot at home. Other citizens want a fertilized, manicured lawn. The city council doesn’t want to pay for a water storage system, and the city engineer doesn’t propose it because nobody wants to hear about it. The city staff want everybody off their backs. Thus, the real issue—fertilizer in the pond—doesn’t get mentioned. Nobody wants to talk about duck manure either.
The same is true of twenty-two states and a river laden with commercial fertilizer and citizen flushes. (Despite the millions of people in the cities, the biggest contribution is the agricultural runoff.) Big companies make money selling fertilizer. Farmers find it cheaper to use too much rather than too little, to confine cows to feed lots rather than open pastures. Organic farming is work-intensive, never mind that we have millions out of work who eat anyway. Even socially responsible citizens have things to do other than pressuring local, state, and federal agencies to pressure agribusiness. In American culture, freedom includes the right to put anything on your land and let it run off. And thus, as with vaccination or climate change or immigration, there’s an elephant in the room, something large that we can’t discuss and resolve. We can’t get a reasonable conversation going, only polarized arguments. We lack the ability to consider two conflicting ideas, each of which contains some truth and some wisdom. It could be the death of us. Sure is for the Gulf Coast.