When I think of great historic figures in Black history, one of the first names that come to mind is George Washington Carver, the celebrated scientist, and inventor. A lot of people know Carver for his contributions to science (and peanuts), but did you know Carver was also one of America’s earliest conservationists?
Carver, born in 1864, was arguably one of the first reported examples to actively end waste on American society. He taught farmers they could feed acorns to pigs and use swamp muck to fertilize crops. He warned of the over-use of fossil fuels and promoted the use of agriculturally sourced alternatives to oil and gas. Carver was a big believer in agriculture, and that everything grown had a purpose.
"I believe the Great Creator has put oil and ores on this earth to give us a breathing spell," Carver is widely quoted as having said. "As we exhaust them, we must fall back on our farms, which is God's true storehouse and can never be exhausted. For we can learn to synthesize materials for every human need from the things that grow."
Carver put his beliefs to the test, creating hundreds of products based on peanuts and sweet potatoes. Some, like Worcestershire Sauce, are still being used to this day.
I wonder what Carver would think of our waste and recycling system now. I can only imagine Carver's outrage at the tremendous amount of waste we generate full of single-use plastics and other items made from non-biodegradable materials dumped in landfills simply taking up space that could be used for better purposes.
Carver was never one to bury his problems. Using his experience with biochemistry, Carver was the first to discover that crops like cotton deplete the soil and that after several seasons of growing nothing but cotton, the fields were less and less healthy leading, ultimately, to wasted crops.
Carver’s solution was to take a break from growing cotton to grow nitrogen-fixing crops like peanuts and sweet potatoes, which gave nutrients back to the soil, refreshing the fields between cotton crops. This remarkable invention is now called “crop rotation” and is practiced all over the world.
Carver’s deep love of the earth and disdain for wasteful practices led him to identify a unique problem plaguing farmers and to innovate a solution so remarkable it is practiced to this day. For that reason, he is widely celebrated, and worth recognizing this year as we honor Black History Month.