What ties the threats of runaway climate change, biodiversity loss culminating in trophic collapse, increasing water scarcity, discrimination and intolerance, food insecurity leading to widespread malnutrition and hunger, and the malignant ennui burdening the minds of millions?
The answer, quite possibly, could be a combination of ecological boredom arising from an economic system which is rapidly destroying the biosphere we as a species depend upon.1
But while it is easy to heap the blame upon globalized financial capitalism, that answer may be all too simple.
Could the root cause of many of the enormous challenges facing humanity actually something else, something more ancient and nearly universal?
1. The concept of Ecological Boredom was brought to my attention while reading George Monbiot's columns preceding the release of his book Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. You can find my attempt at a different kind of book review here on Daily Kos.
Last Time Here...
Path near our new home in Espoo, Finland. 11 October 2013
First, I guess I should say that I was away for two weeks because I was in the process of moving from Helsinki all the way to Espoo (!) with my wife. So, as you might imagine, with my full-time internship and moving, I did not have time to sit down and write anything.
Before I get started, I wanted to remind everyone that this week was the Blogathon for Food Justice.2 I have not had time to read everything yet, but I am keeping the links bookmarked for the future.
By now, you probably know that I have a strong bias towards a certain kind of systems thinking approach to the world. I prefer holistic thinking about the issues facing humanity- seeking to find some root causes and working from there. In that spirit, I have diaried about what restoring ecosystem function can mean to people across the globe (and other species).3 I have diaried about the great, painful losses that our world experiences with ever increasing frequency- and what we can do about it.4
And I have also made it my goal to continue spreading this systems thinking in order to check the strongly held belief- what I perceive as dogma- amongst many environmentalists that livestock are inherently detrimental to their immediate environment and the climate at large.5
For the past month, I have been reading and sharing from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development's Trade and Environmental Review 2013 (UNCTAD TER13) entitled, "Wake up Before it is Too Late: Make Agriculture Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate."6 Over 60 international experts have provided contributions to a 300+ page report documenting how systems thinking is essentially humanity's best bet at curbing, reversing, or ending many of the ills I listed in the introduction.
Their conclusions are in tune with what myself and countless others across the globe have been sounding both alarm and celebratory bells about for years (and in some cases, decades).
What is that again, exactly?
1. Study Nature
2. Facilitate Natural Functions
3. Rediscover Abundance
2. Click here for Aji's announcement diary with the schedule.
3. Introduction to Agroecology: Green Gold- "The Source of Wealth is [are] the Functional Ecosystems"
4. Introduction to Agroecology: "A Serengeti on Our Doorsteps"- George Monbiot & Rewilding the Earth
5. See the "Additional Resources" list at the end of this diary for my diaries on Holistic Management.
6. My last three diaries revolved around the report in one way shape or form. The report can be found here at UNCTAD's website.
"Great abundance of riches cannot be gathered and kept by any man without sin"- Desiderius Erasmus
Observation, facilitation, and the rediscovery of abundance in early spring 2012 in North Carolina- one spring after rehabilitation began.
What comes to mind when you picture abundance? A well-stocked supermarket? Your local farmer's market during the peak of a blessed season? Perhaps your pantry filled to the brim with fresh produce from your CSA?
While all of the above may constitute abundance in some books, I feel that none of them truly capture the essence of abundance. What do I consider to be abundance?
HD: Grizzly Bears Catching Salmon - Nature's Great Events: The Great Salmon Run - BBC One:
Now, to most folks, the scenes depicted above are about the salmon running the gauntlet of Alaska's predatory animals. To a smaller group, it may represent what we are losing as we exploit the regions around the headwaters and dams severely impact the salmon runs.
But to an even smaller group- those with a mind towards systems thinking- this represents a completion of a very important feedback loop. That is, the return of marine resources to the interior of a continent. Salmon are not merely food for the bears and eagles (and other opportunists), but rather the entire ecosystem. Without the salmon, the ecosystem loses out on significant nutrient loads.7 This is because of the relationship between mycorrhizal fungi and plants, chiefly their ability to shuttle nutrients (and other important resources and signals) between their hosts and other mycorrhizal fungi. Mycelial networks can cover vast distances: a single exemplary non-mycorrhizal fungi was estimated to cover over 2,400 acres (over 9 sq km).8
So why does abundance need to be rediscovered? The answer might have something to do with this-
7. See this interesting discussion regarding the "Effects of Salmon-derived Nitrogen on Riparian Forest Growth and Implications for Stream Productivity" between the authors of a study regarding marine derived nitrogen (MDN) and a scientific critique of their 2001 study.
8. Paul Stamets, Mycelium Running (U.S.A.: Ten Speed Press, 2005) 45.
"You are looking at a landscape more or less bald, eroded down to almost to the bones of the geology." -Geoff Lawton
Geoff Lawton (left) discussing the "Land of Milk and Honey" with Mr. Liu. in the documentary "Green Gold." Photo Credit: VPRO Tegenlicht
We must rediscover abundance precisely because of the inventions that were taking place in the region known as the Fertile Crescent roughly 10,000 BP.9 [Note- beware of generalizations in the coming text!]
You see, humanity has a very long history of causing the climate to change. As Allan Savory, the founder of Holistic Management, says:10
Clearly, we have never understood what is causing desertification, which has destroyed many civilizations and now threatens us globally. We have never understood it. Take one square meter of soil and make it bare like this is down here, and I promise you, you will find it much colder at dawn and much hotter at midday than that same piece of ground if it's just covered with litter, plant litter. You have changed the microclimate. Now, by the time you are doing that and increasing greatly the percentage of bare ground on more than half the world's land, you are changing macroclimate. But we have just simply not understood why was it beginning to happen 10,000 years ago? Why has it accelerated lately? We had no understanding of that. [emphasis added]
The Agricultural Revolution began mankind's long existential crisis: who are we? Over the centuries, human beings who started down the path of domesticating the flora and fauna around themselves also began to radically change the way they perceived themselves. Domestication was, and is, a two way street.
We began to question our role in this universe to greater degrees than before. With our inventions and increasingly complex societies built with complex tools, humans started to separate themselves from the natural world. We were no longer of it, but rather separate or chosen. An obsession with the products of our own minds blinded many of us to carefully observing the world around us. Inventing new tools to solve problems created by actions, rather than altering (or abandoning) those actions has been a guiding principle for centuries.
Our distant ancestors persecuted mega fauna across the entire globe, with two species of elephant- the Syrian and North African- meeting their demise during Antiquity due to over hunting and loss of habitat. Like the elephants, the cedar forests of Lebanon survived for thousands of years until human exploitation brought the system to its knees.
Not only did our ancestors persecute the fauna of this planet, but we began to divide the flora into good and evil. As early as the recording of the stories of Genesis, humans had begun to victimize floral species we did not (and still do not) understand. Without the knowledge of what tilling does to the soil food web, we had little understanding as to why the "thorns and thistles" of the world were growing in our fields. Little did we know that these "weeds," which we work so hard to "control" to this day, thrive in disturbed soils: they are pioneer species.
And so our long war on nature had begun over ten thousand years ago. Real and perceived competition from other organisms has led to hostile world view: plants and animals are either with us, or against us. This hostile view on the natural world was readily extended to our human neighbors. A bloody divorce ensued and has been ongoing since. And as history shows quite clearly, when a society that deems itself above reality encounters a society that still acknowledges its unity, the insane society commits the full weight of its depravity to destroying the latter.
Thousands of years of war amongst ourselves and our environment had a real cost. Brittle, fragile regions of the world, such as the Middle East, were at one point robust enough to withstand thousands of years of human assault.
This abundance prevented many human societies from coming to an understanding that they were, in fact, living in a fragile system. Once the foundation of functioning ecosystems were demolished, the systems would quickly deteriorate. The concept of Shifting Baselines applies readily here- many were unable to see that age old cultural practices were slowly eroding nature's principle investments. And by the time these systems effectively collapsed, any thought of change would be easily met with extreme cultural conservatism. By cultural conservatism I mean practices and systems of land management, how we "cultivate" the earth- not necessarily social culture.
While it is normally assumed that the loss of habitat was due to climate change beyond the control of human beings, as Allan Savory makes clear, humanity has control of a region's macro climate through how we choose to manage a landscape. Of course I am not saying that humans are solely and always responsible for climate change- that would be absurd. But I am saying that we have to acknowledge our species' uncanny ability to systematically dismantle natural systems.
This war on natural systems persists to this day. Just a few examples:
Rampant deforestation in Pakistan is said to have contributed significantly to the disastrous floods which took place there a few years ago. The same can be said of Hurricane Irene in Vermont- improper landscape management led to serious human and environmental consequences, especially flooding. As the Whole Systems Research Farm demonstrated quite clearly in this video, the damage was not inevitable. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho made it clear in her article Paradigm Shift Urgently Needed in Agriculture that research from around the globe is documenting how integrated agroecosystems can withstand even severe weather events like cyclones.11
As much as we pretend to understand natural systems, it is increasingly clear that the pursuit of dominance is still humanity's preferred choice when it comes to our interactions with the natural world. We continue to pretend that our divorce from nature that began so long ago was somehow finalized, when in reality, we will never be separate. Continuing with reductionist thinking will only bring about our species' collective suicide.
9. I do not mean to single out this hearth of agriculture for what follows. There have been few places on this planet where human beings have escaped the same fate.
10. Allan Savory's TED talk, which I discussed here on Daily Kos.
11. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho, Paradigm Shift Urgently Needed in Agriculture, reposted on Permaculture News.
Rediscovering abundance is not about romanticizing the past, but rather walking hand in hand into the future dedicated to facilitating natural processes
Nadia Lawton teaching Jordanian girls ecological gardening and permaculture in "Green Gold." Photo Credit: VPRO Tegenlicht
Our society has become accustomed to a world in which a well stocked supermarket, displaying only a tiny subset of useful and edible foodstuffs, is the epitome of abundance. Although heroic efforts at drawing back the veil of industrial agriculture has sparked a counter movement, I still find it amazing many calling for reform have still internalized the concept of dominance.
I volunteer with a few organizations that revolve around food. Even among these circles, the idea that humanity cannot continue to "own" 100% of the solar energy that a piece of land receives is disconcerting for many. The expectation, even among reformists, is that their garden is going to produce for them what they want when they want it. Devoting space to plants or features that fulfill ecological niches for beneficial organisms is met with more than a little resistance. All too often, the plants we should be partnering with have been stigmatized throughout human history as "weeds" that need to be eradicated.
Also all too often, we even rob ecosystems of valuable nutrients to "tidy" up a space- as the western ideal of a tidy garden has anything to do with productivity. The astonishment at allowing a tree to keep its leaf litter would be laughable if it were not so sad.
Even today, I learned the news that my wife's grandmother harvested my radishes at the summer cottage. Those radishes were not planted for us to eat: they were planted to feed the soil through root exudates, structure the soil with their strong tap root, and reemerge in spring as a source of early nectar leading to seed collection.
We have a very, very long way to go if we are to overcome deep cultural traditions that are nothing short of suicidal. Simply "going organic" is not enough. The hard evidence is in: the world we examine on a daily basis is a shell of its former self. Seeking to sustain this is woefully inadequate and uninspiring in the face of what regeneration has to offer.
Hopefully, the resources that I have been compiling here will prove useful in providing the keys to unlocking the knowledge necessary to properly challenge long held beliefs. I encourage everyone to study nature, facilitate natural functions, and thereby rediscover abundance.
Weekly Agroecology Diaries
Sept. 14 2013. Introduction to Agroecology: Is it Anthropogenic or Bovigenic Climate Change?
Sept. 21 2013. Agroecology: "Rehabilitation of degraded land has the potential to double [...] agricultural land"
Sept. 29 2013. Agroecology: "...Outperform[s] the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food production..."
Oct. 6 2013. Agroecology: "Wake up before it is too late"- UNCTAD's TER13 Report.
Reviewing (in my own way) George Monbiot's "Feral." Link.
Large Scale Damaged Ecosystem Regeneration [Diary]:
Excellent, must see documentary: John Liu's Green Gold- extended version of "Hope in a Changing Climate" that was presented at the recent Rio summit.
Another good article by John D. Liu. Finding Sustainability in Ecosystem Restoration.
Holistic Management [Diaries: First, Second, Third, Fourth]:
The Savory Institute.
The Africa Centre For Holistic Management.
Holistic Management International.
Seth Itzkan has put together a very good reference list for Holistic Management, here.
The Permaculture Research Institute is excellent (Updated: formerly PRI Australia). With almost daily updates from the world of permaculture (an ethical design system that utilizes agroecology [diary]), this site is on my "must check list" daily. Good news to be found here.
There are some excellent video presentations from 2011's International Permaculture Convergence held in Jordan, which followed a permaculture design course taught at the world-renowned "Greening the Desert Part II" site in the Dead Sea Valley. Here is a link to the documentary about the site, and here is a photo update from Spring 2013.If you scroll to the bottom of this webpage, you will find links to video presentations given at the convergence.
Here is a list of diaries I wrote that covered some of the very basics.
I. Basic Garden Ecology
Plants for a Future. Absolutely massive database for useful plants.
The first diary of this series revolves around three documentaries.
The first is a TED talk by Willie Smits about rainforest restoration to provide habitat for orangutans and a standard of living for the local people using agroecological methods. Not only was the project highly successful, but climate moderation was demonstrated via satellite imagery.
The second, The Rebel Farmer, is about Sepp Holzer, a very famous Austrian who practices his own version of permaculture. He has also written numerous books in addition to being in demand across the globe.
The third presents "Greening the Desert"- which covers both sites in Jordan where Geoff Lawton and the Permaculture Research Institute have been applying permaculture with great success.
In no particular order:
John D. Liu: pioneering large scale damaged ecosystem restoration.
What If We Change: John D. Liu's project to inspire others to share their efforts to combat climate change and other problems.
Whole Systems Design: operating from Vermont, Ben Falk's permaculture design firm. Excellent site overview and talks on agroecology. Also a must see video from Hurricane Irene.
Permaculture News: PRI's YouTube branch
Permasolutions: Offering permaculture inspired solutions to problems
Toby Hemenway: Author of Gaia's Garden and permaculture designer. Great talk on horticultural society.
Al Baydha: Pilot project in Saudi Arabia to regenerate "bare bones" landscape for Bedouins.
Eric Toensmeier: Author of Perennial Vegetables, coauthor of Edible Forest Gardens, and plant guru. Has an upcoming book on perennial agricultural solutions to climate change.
Paul Stamets: World famous visionary mycologist who will change the way you see the world. You'll never forget fungi after his speeches regarding their potential use and place in the ecosystems.
My favorite books:
Edible Forest Gardens, Vol I and II. David Jacke with Eric Toensmeier. Chelsea Green, 2006.
Sepp Holzer's Permaculture. Sepp Holzer, translated by Anna Sapsford-Francis. Chelsea Green, 2010.
Gaia's Garden. Toby Hemenway. Chelsea Green, 2009 (2nd edition).
Let the Water Do the Work. Bill Zeedyk and Van Clother. The Quivira Coalition, 2009.
The One Straw Revolution. Masanobu Fukuoka. Link will point you to a decent review.
Akinori Kimura's Miracle Apples. By Takuji Ishikawa, translated by Yoko Ono. This is an absolutely fantastic story. My favorite part is towards the end, chapter 22, when Kimura is told of his family's first success. Give it a read!
Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding. George Monbiot. Allen Lane, 2013.
The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach. Ben Falk. Chelsea Green, 2013.
For a much fuller list of books on the subject, see Toby Hemenway's Permaculture Reading List.
The Land Institute. Their goal is to develop highly productive perennial staple crops which will produce a living system as stable as natural prairies. This is the kind of pioneering research we should be funding. H/T to sfinx for bringing them up.