Working without Caring

On a day off, you may find my friend Jeffrey Olrick and me paddling our kayaks in the waters of Southwest Florida where we live. Jeffrey wrote the following after a recent outing:

The Book of Genesis declares that we are made for this earth to “work and care” for it. I am thinking about these words as I return from the water. The water, for me, is my place of recovery. A refuge. Four days a week I do holy work as a therapist. But it’s in an office. With a very small window. And I’m an introvert. In the middle of those four work days, on Wednesday, I go to the water to fish in my kayak. Normally, the water feeds my soul.
But today it grieved my soul. The water was barren. Where there should have been acres of seagrass, there was only mud and patches of algae. For those who do not spend their time on the water, such a change in landscape is hard to appreciate. It would be the equivalent of revisiting a mature forest, home to a rich ecosystem of animals big and small, and finding it clearcut with only scrub bushes left behind. And for no reason. Not even a shiny new development to put in its place.
How did this happen in my home of Southwest Florida? The same way that it happens all over this planet every day: powerful corporations have been given the right to “work” the land without in any way “caring” for it.
In our case, three sugar companies receive the bulk of 1 billion in federal loans annually, plus subsidies that cost American taxpayers hundreds of millions annually. (1) Supported in this way, these companies grow sugar on land that is meant to be a flowing sheet of water draining a lake half the size of Rhode Island. During wet periods, excess water backs up in Lake Okeechobee; meanwhile, these companies back-pump polluted waters into the lake from their lands to keep them dry. This brown mess is then redirected to two magnificent estuaries that have no natural connection to the lake, Indian River Lagoon (2) on the east coast of Florida and San Carlos Bay via the Caloosahatchie River (3) on the Southwest coast of Florida. (4)
This winter in south Florida we had the wettest January on record. The resultant flow of water as been above the maximum discharge that the San Carlos and Indian Lagoon estuaries can handle without major ecological damage for over 2 months running.
And so it was, that today I saw what work without care looks like in my little corner of this Creation. There I sat, in my kayak in the middle of San Carlos Bay, floating over an underwater desert where only months earlier had been a vibrant seagrass forest, weeping.
And angry. Time and time again we are told that the value of working the land (without caring for it) is always worth the cost so long as it means jobs and economic activity. But the problem is that we are never given a full accounting of the costs of economic activity, including health costs, or devaluation costs, or environmental costs. When those costs inevitably arrive, they are almost always born by you and me (not to mention our fellow creatures), while the corporations continue to rake in profits. A 2015 Florida Realtors report estimated that the property owners of just one county affected by the last Big O discharge event in 2013 lost 488 million dollars in property value as a result of that single event.(5) When the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan was approved by Congress in 2000 to fix South Florida’s version of work without care, the price tag was estimated at 10.5 billion dollars.(6) Big Sugar agreed to pay 320 million of the bill.(7) You and I are left with the rest of the 10 million tag.
So, what costs are you in line to pay to let a few profit by working God’s beautiful earth without caring for it? If we don’t insist that our elected officials care more diligently on the front end, we will surely be stuck with a bill on the back end that we may or may not be willing or able to afford.

Jeffrey Olrick is a clinical psychologist who lives and works in Southwest Florida with his wife and 3 children. He is an excellent fisherman!