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Before Its Time 

Pondering the future over an oyster and a bottle of wine

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There are any number of canaries in the global warming mineshaft — species, groups of people or entire cultures. Too many of them seem to be going the way of the dinosaurs. For brevity’s sake, let’s look at three surprising but emblematic canaries: grapes (wine), oysters (the ocean) and clear language (systems thinking).

First, the vino: There have been fossil grape vines found that are 60 million years old. What I like to think as the first historical evidence of discovering winemaking comes from a Persian fable about a depressed princess who was contemplating suicide but ended up buoyant with a change of heart after eating a bowl of “spoiled” grapes.

The march of civilization has seen the cultivation of grapes as one of the finer attributes and the conjoining of culture, science and art. It’s just been a few years now that Washington state grapes have garnered such a rep to the point that our state’s wine is second only to California’s. Currently, 32,000 acres are planted across more than 11 appellations or wine growing regions. There are some 650 wineries in business using our grapes.

I’ve spent time with Maryhill Winery’s Craig Leuthold, who keeps a home in Spokane with his wife Vicki but whose winery near Hood River just landed the Washington 2009 Winery of the Year award. Craig knows his wine, knows the necessity of going modern, and understands the pressures of weather, climate and the economy.

He employs modern technology to monitor soil, climate and the regional and global economics of wine.

Even with the computers checking microclimates and the grapes’ sugar ratios, Craig still believes in the terroir — the mix of soil, climate, vine location, grape care and all the age-old techniques to make the many varieties of wine. And he’s worried about the future of his craft.

Here’s how the grape is the canary: At the second annual Conference on Climate Change and Wine in Barcelona, viticulturists came together to discuss climate change and wine. Since grapes around the world are grown in ultra-narrow geographical regions and climatic niches, they’re at much greater risk from both climate variability and long-term climate change than more “broad acre” crops.

This lack of resiliency is the viticulturist’s bane.

It’s already gotten so bad that Bordeaux wineries in France are absolutely paranoid about their famous grape disappearing completely.

Unfortunately, food production worldwide is being affected by climate change, and it’s one of the biggest topics of concern with various national and international organizations and governments concerned about food crops.

The next Tweetie Bird? The oyster. Here’s why: Almost half the carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere thus far by human activity has been absorbed by oceans. Oceans are now much more acidic than they have been for hundreds of millions of years. Acidity determines the ability of many species to make their skeletons and shells. Animal and plant life in the ocean make up a complex web. Sea stars, sea urchins, mussels, clams, oysters and corals are the first species to be impacted by ocean acidity.

When excess CO2 is pumped into the atmosphere and dissolves into seawater, it lowers the pH of the oceans. A byproduct of that process — carbonic acid — quickly converts to carbonate and bicarbonate ions, which are corrosive to the calcium carbonate shells of oysters and other marine species.

Overfishing and harvesting have always been key stressors on marine ecosystems. But various conditions in the ocean tied to climate change also have created a rampant bacterial outbreak — Vibrio tubiashii. This microbe doesn’t sicken people, but it kills shellfish in their larval stage, before they latch onto rocks to grow. The nation’s largest commercial oyster aqua farming area off of Oregon had to shut down last year because of the bacterium.

“We’re in a state of panic,” says Robin Downey, executive director of the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association, based in Olympia. “There is no other word for it.”

Finally, language and farming are the next indicators of a world powerless to stop extinction events. We can’t even agree on what to call it: climate instability, climate change, global warming, climate disruption, anthropomorphic climate making or a conspiracy by socialist greenies to stop capitalism and the American way of life?

There are no two ways about it: Language today, in our amped-up, 24-hour cable TV, three-minute news cycle world, has been stripped, bastardized, co-opted, “memory holed” and “double-spoken” into a state of near extinction.

Double-speak that no one questions is what allows Corporation X to corner the wild salmon market — until it’s gone. Or when the America Petroleum Institute forces employees to launch fake protests against a federal climate bill. Or when Company X says it produces clean energy while a majority of its spark comes from the coal mined via mountaintop removal. Or when Procter and Gamble shills cold-water detergent as “green” when it’s the same old Tide.

Then there’s G.E., Caterpillar and Alcoa joining environmental groups that back “sweeping cuts” in emissions even as they support industry trade groups lobbying against mandatory cuts in greenhouse gases.

Those advocating wind, solar power or electric autos are ascribing sustainability and smart growth as ways to solve climate change. Deep down, though, many know we need massive conservation of resources and restorative actions. The canary that’s choking is straight, honest language and connecting the dots.

And therein lies the supply of clean, healing air that will keep these canaries alive — holistic thinking and the real change only it can enable. [email protected]

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