The Last Man Standing: A Cross-Country Quest to Understand Climate Change's Threat to Our Food
If we don't do things differently, we won't have food.
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This is where I hastily scribble about what’s going on. May include righteous anger and typos.
Welp. That took a month.
Here it is, the first of endless hours of produced content that I could (and really hope) to make from my 4,000-mile scramble across the country with the overall wearing, Marlboro ripping, Pulitzer Prize-winning Heartland Heartthrob, Art Cullen.
The next time I make one of these, it’ll take a week. Eh, maybe two. But a thing needed to be done and the thing was did! I wanted long-form production, shooting, and editing skills. When I left for the trip, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I found it out by making this, and I know how the next long project will be better. You lovely folks financed it, and this trip is a permanent mile marker in my life now. Thanks for that. You’re real swell.
A lot of shit happens when you drive 2,000 miles on two-lane roads across America and back. It’s a ridiculous country in every way, size especially. And it’s my birthright as a patriotic American to point out the absurdity of our Phoneix-on-the-Trans-Am-White Snake-Honey-Boo-Boo, Honky-Tonk-USDA-Certified-Dump-Truck of a Republic. 2,000 miles isn’t even one shot all the way across.
The most ridiculous though is how similar it looks across all those miles. You can find it all out there, no doubt. There are beautiful and unique pockets of the country you’d be hard-pressed to locate anywhere else.
I’m talking about unmitigated sprawl. You can count on it cropping up on the edge of every city from Wheeling, WV to Huntington Beach, California. There’s a corporate uniformity spilling off of every interstate highway exit, depositing a silt delta of gas station signs, asphalt, mattress stores, dollar generals, tax prep shacks, and inflatable tube dudes trashing away by a Keno sign. It’s a land of, by, and for the bottom line, and this is what it looks like.
That image is fake. Did you notice? It was generated by AI after I asked it to depict a highway exit POV from behind the wheel anywhere in America. I think it makes the point nicely.
America by interstate is one thing. Traveling two-lane roads gives the best view of the collateral damage of our system. For every growing city sprawling outward and paving farmland, there are a baker’s dozen of small dusty burgs where the Dollar General thrives as the relics of healthy mainstreets decompose.
Miles of dying strip malls dot the landscape between cities that soak up all the youth looking for a better shot. Inside the cities, trendy taco shops huck tiny expensive tacos, and chic thrift stores sell second-hand clothes for first-hand prices. There’s a section of every growing city where the biggest conglomerates sell their imitation of the main street experience that just couldn’t keep up.
Long ago we decided to worship efficiency and the free market above all else. We took the brakes off the Fortune 500 and let it run wild. This is what it looks like a few decades down the line.
All of us operate within this system. Its dominance makes it hard to do anything else. Have you tried walking to a grocery store recently? It’s not designed to be easy. This is what we mean by “inertia” in the video. Most of the people we talked to know that we can’t go on sustainably like this, but our system has so much momentum that it’s hard to imagine another way.
There are cycles of course. I was one of the youths that got the hell out of Rust Belt Appalachia ten years ago. I’m back now. My apartment is on one of those dead main streets. Life is good. Rent is cheap. Other weirdos in search of cheap rent have trickled back into town. Most people who could get out did. They left a lot of room in fly-over country to let your freak flag whip in the wind like one of those inflatable tube dudes advertising Keno at the gas station.
It works for me.
This 4,000-mile road trip and the resulting video were only possible because of our paid members. I have you to thank for a great leap forward in skills to make this kind of media. I can’t wait to put what I’ve picked up here to use on the next project. If you love independent media and believe in its importance over the next ten years as shit continues to hit the fan with only corporate media to cover it, become an independent media sustainer now please!($5/mo $60/yr).
Full Video Transcript
Art Cullen 0:03
You have her saddled up and everything! You gotta hate to sell it, don't you?
Gene Jackson 0:06
I do hate to sell it, but I can't afford to feed her right now. So...
Art Cullen 0:12
This drought has been going on for 20 to 30 years and could run another 20 or 30. The world's top scientists aren't certain what's just around the bend, except for this - human activity is cooking the Great Plains and Southwest.
We're sitting in the garden spot of the world in Iowa. And it made me wonder, how are they coping in the Great Plains and in the Southwest, then we wanted to go out to the West Coast and see how people perceive the drought there.
Everybody thinks they're gonna be the last man standing. And in fact, that person we found him and his name is Gene Jackson. He's a 19-year-old cattle producer. And he's standing out there against the wind and the heat and the drought. And he's determined to make it.
Gene Jackson 0:58
We run about 150 pair and that's a pretty good guesstimate for everybody.
Art Cullen 1:04
Are there many people getting out because of drought?
Gene Jackson 1:06
Drought definitely is helping cause it and the lack of water. There are a lot of fields down the south end of the valley that haven't been farmed for about five years because there hasn't been water for them.
Art Cullen 1:17
You're getting about half as much rain as you were, what does that do to your grazing?
Gene Jackson 1:22
You have to run more acres and it's getting real hard to find pasture for the cattle I know a lot of people have sold out the last couple of years because they can't find a place to run their cattle, just because of poor pasture and not enough water. And then there are more people moving in and putting up houses.
Art Cullen 1:38
Can you imagine yourself ever doing anything but this?
Gene Jackson 1:42
Art Cullen 1:45
So then we crossed the Rocky Mountains. It was pretty stunning to us to drive through there, and we made it to Huntington Beach.
We met Chris Myers, who grew up surfing there back in the 70s, 50 years ago, before it was all poured over in concrete.
I saw the stuff grow up basically. Yeah, I saw freeways going in if you can believe that.
Chris Myers 2:02
This is a surf shop... That's where I bought my board! Years ago, I bought my board there.
A lot of these beach communities are having problems with big waves and high surf, high tides, and damaging homes and stuff.
John Russell 2:26
How long has that been going on?
Chris Myers 2:29
It's been worse in the last probably 10 to 20 years, I think.
So the drought has been going on for... 30 years?
There's a bark beetle infestation that's been going on for the last 20, 30 years. The whole forest is just like... brown.
We've got another storm coming this week. This is the most rain I can ever remember my whole life here.
Art Cullen 2:58
Chris Myers 2:59
Oh yeah. There's too much water and there's mudslides and when it's dry, there's fires. It's just… the cycle keeps repeating.
Art Cullen 3:09
How tired do they have to get?
Chris Myers 3:12
To leave? Yeah, yeah I don't think anyone is close to leaving.
Art Cullen 3:15
The Colorado River that slakes Phoenix and Las Vegas is running full from a series of 14 atmospheric river bombs that lead to destruction up and down the Pacific Coast.
As you can see the banks are full. We were just driving through blizzards a couple of days ago. This small river is feeding Phoenix, Las Vegas, and all the Southwest. It's feeding alfalfa fields, which we're gonna go look at right now.
They're growing alfalfa which is a very water-intensive crop. This shows the competing interest for that water not only are people demanding the water but also livestock are demanding this water in the form of alfalfa.
Now we just pointed the camera on the other side of the road. Here's where they're growing. This is... you can see what the soil looks like here. This is the desert. It's just... It's nuts to me.
So we talked to Dan O'Brien, an ag economist at Kansas State, and he sort of illustrates how we get locked into these ag supply chains that are kind of inviolable.
Would you say that the drought has been most severe the last three years?
Dan O'Brien 4:24
Yes, in this cycle, there there was a similar cycle from 2000 to 2004. When you know again, crop yields, you're happy during that earlier period to get into the 20 and 30 bushels per acre (of corn).
Farmers, absent a financial crisis forcing them out through dealing with a financial institution or whatever, absent that, or death, they tend to roll over and keep going with what they have. They have investments on line and year by year they keep going.
At retirement, generations make a decision to go forth or not. The trend certainly is towards increased consolidation. The better-capitalized operations tend to survive the downturns better.
Here in this part of the world, we've had states that have sued states. You know, Kansas sued Colorado sued Nebraska about flows in the Platte River and the Republican River.
Art Cullen 5:29
Here we are in Arapaho, Nebraska. Just came in from Kansas. And here we are on the Republican River. And this is, you know, when, these banks should be full.
There are many, many interests competing for this low flow of water right here. And you can see how limited the supply is.
A couple of themes strike me throughout the trip. And that is that we all think we're going to be the last man standing, whether it's Gene Jackson, Chris Myers, or myself. I think I'm going to be the last man standing in the community newspaper industry.
And the other thing is inertia, that we have built this system that kind of feeds on itself. Whether it's corn production or oil production. It's a law of physics. And somehow you've got to break the inertia to get us to recognize that we just can't continue building on the beach. And we can't continue to grow corn indiscriminately at Iowa. And we probably shouldn't be growing it at all in Kansas. But all our systems are built around the fact that you must, and if we don't do things differently, we won't have food.
Few people are more intimate with their environment than Gene Jackson. He describes how Jackie is better than a horse for moving cattle around rocky steep terrain. We didn't hang around to see how she sold. We were off to get some more of that gas at the next filling station just beyond that horizon. And another plastic bottle of water is purchased. Because it's a long ride out there and it sure is dry. You pay for it. As the mural warns on the abandoned motel on a highway off the beaten path of interstate freeways packed with campers and 18-wheelers, the American rent is due.
There's no avoiding it.
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