The first step to solving a problem is admitting to it. To change, use different thinking than what created it. How do we get from “our lifestyle is not negotiable” to “living a mutually beneficial lifestyle for us and our ecosystem?”
The mother of all long-term problems is that our culture has become an “anti-ecosystem.” Humans lived in symbiosis with all life for three million years before the agricultural revolution. Humanity fixed nitrogen, created carbon dioxide, and compost for plants in exchange for food, shelter, water, and air/oxygen.
10,000 years ago, one tribe in the fertile crescent changed history and started living a new story that “the world belongs to man” instead of “humanity belonging to the earth.” This new story lead to our lifestyle today that has ruptured our evolutionarily-developed mutually-beneficial relationship with our ecosystem.
Over the long run, how humanity lives with its ecosystem is infinitely more important than any other problem we face. Problems we face today such as the financial crisis and peak oil will affect us and the next couple generations, but then they are over. Social justice, poverty, overpopulation, and climate change are more symptoms of how we live within our ecosystem.
Because we are living the story that “the world belongs to man,” we can concentrate wealth, creating injustice and poverty. We can also populate at will regardless of the affect on all other species. Climate change is a reflection of our thirst for energy and an easy life. All of these and most other problems come from our world view. As long as “our life style is not negotiable” we will never change for the better.
I want to make it crystal clear that our biggest long-term problem is our relationship with our life supporting ecosystem. By long-term I don’t mean seven generations, I mean 500 generations—another 10,000 years. In seven generations, they will still be cleaning up our mess. If there is to be a 500th generation, we must admit our problem and find a new way or regain an old way of knowing. This is not a question of how future generations will live, but whether there will be future generations or not.
I will use two simple examples to open your mind: history and your body. Every ancient human civilization has failed. And, unless their people walked way before their ecosystem became too damaged, like the Mayan did, all ancient civilizations left deserts in their footsteps.
Recently I spent some time in Bosnia and Herzegovina with family. It reminded me of other parts of the Mediterranean that I have visited before. But once I remembered my history, what I was seeing really hit home. There was no topsoil left on the hills. Walking up them to the shrines for “Our Lady” in Medjigorie was difficult; it was almost completely rocky.
What was once old growth forest, was now a rocky savanna. The forests are long gone to smelt metals for the bronze and iron ages or just for heating and cooking. What is now left is a rocky over grazed scrub land that won’t even support olives. You can barely scratch any soil between the rocks with a knife there is so little left. Read Culturequake: The Fall of Modern Culture and the Rise of Earth Culture for detailed examples of civilization-caused ecosystem degradation.
Our culture reverses the growth of soil. Soil is reproduced from its parent material so slowly that once the topsoil is washed off the land it is, from a practical standpoint, permanently impoverished. It takes about 300 to 1,000 years to build one inch (2.5 centimeters) of topsoil under favorable conditions. When seven inches of topsoil is washed away, at least 2,000 to 7,000 years of nature’s work is gone. All of the world’s life depends on the fertility of this thin layer of topsoil covering only one-tenth of the earth’s total surface.
The laws of natural selection force practically all plants and animals to support the soil building process. No species of plant can survive long on sloping hillsides unless it helped check soil erosion. No species of animal developed enough intelligence or versatility to survive for long unless it tended to support the continued growth of plants and soil. Otherwise it destroyed itself by destroying its primary source of food.
For about 350 million years, the growth of land-based soil and life has increased. And the evolution of plants and animals to higher forms and greater biodiversity has continued until now. This is why I call our culture an “anti-ecosystem” – as it reverses what ecosystems build. The “agricultural revolution” should really be called the “symbiosis disruption.” In a blink of a eye, our culture has ripped an enormous hole in our ecosystem’s food web.
If the earth was your body, you may not know it yet, but you would have several severe or terminal illnesses. Your diagnosis would be congestive heart failure, AIDS, metastasized cancer, pulmonary fibrosis, plus a fever.
Your body has congestive heart failure because your rivers are polluted and blocked, AIDS because your natural resilience from biodiversity is crashing, cancer because the problem is spreading uncontrollably, the cancer has metastasized because it is now globalized everywhere, pulmonary fibrosis because your forest lung fibers are being clear cut and the air you breath is polluted, and you are running a fever called global warming. In short, if the earth was your body, you would be very sick.
The 2005 U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment reported that, “Approximately 60% (15 out of 24) of the ecosystem services evaluated in this assessment are being degraded or used unsustainably,” and “10–30% of mammal, bird, and amphibian species are currently threatened with extinction.” If 60 percent of your body was beginning to fail and you were losing 10 to 30 percent of your immune system, you would be rushed to the hospital.
You may say, “I don’t think it’s that bad.” Three points: first, looking back people do not experience what the world was like for their grandparents and great great grandparents. If they did, they would be shocked. Peter Kahn called this “generational environmental amnesia.” We live too short a life time to know how the world has changed. We might remember when the field next door was turned into a subdivision. But we do not remember what the old growth forest was like next door before it was turned into a field.
Looking forward, I am not talking about the near future. Although, in a few years from now it will become difficult to walk out your door and go “happy motoring.” I am defining a long-term problem that affects many future generations. Connect the dots much further out than just your next paycheck.
Third, how can we be so selfish? We have been given the gift of not only life which we should cherish, but also of some semblance of intelligence. Yet we have this enormous lack of empathy for any other species other than our own. We sit back, drink beer, watch TV, and many could care less.
For ten millennia now one tribe’s cultural story has grown to dominate all others. The last remaining indigenous cultures are barely hanging on against our cultural onslaught. The onslaught of our technology, our languages, our media, our corporations, our bankers, and our loggers. A few dysfunctional wealthy stand atop the shoulders of the vast majority of people and all other species.
Theologian Leonardo Boff put it this way, “Not only do the poor scream, but also the water, the animals, the forests, the soils: that is, the Earth as a living super organism, called Gaia. They scream because they are continuously attacked. They scream because their autonomy and intrinsic value are not recognized. They scream because they are threatened with extinction. Every day around ten species of living beings disappear as a result of human aggressiveness in the contemporary industrial process.”
Many people are starting to recognize that “something just isn’t right,” and are searching for what to do. The answer is to restore the disruption in our relationship with the ecosystem. If we do this, everything else will eventually fall into place. There is a gray area between our ability to restore the earth and getting out of the way to let mother nature do her work. I myself am a permaculturist trying to restore 140 years of damage to our Ashland farm. With permaculture, we work with nature’s succession instead of against it.
Masanobu Fukuoka developed a system of rice farming and orcharding that involved no cultivation, no chemical fertilizer or prepared compost, no weeding by tillage or herbicides, and no pruning. Once he got “out of the way” of nature his rice and orchard yields matched industrial agricultures. He was doing another vastly important thing, he was building topsoil. Each year Fukuoka’s fields became more fertile.
We cannot expect everyone of us to start living like Masanobu Fukuoka today, but for those who are ready let’s start considering a new story—that “humanity belongs to the earth.” The story we live by is the rudder that steers our culture. Change the story and the culture will follow in time.
An ecosystem is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships and energy flows. Our planet, Gaia, is a self-regulating whole life system. Sunlight is the only input to this closed loop. A life form is what “it does.” The now extinct passenger pigeon was a huge nutrient distribution system. When one of the several mile long flocks of birds that darkened the sky stopped to roost, it left two to three inches of manure nutrients. One flock of millions of passenger pigeons did 300 to 1,000 years of soil building in a few just a few days.
Life is a process—a sacred spirit enlivened process. We know this when a loved one is still alive, yet has become simply a body that can no longer relate or respond to us. We know they are gone even before they are dead.
The earth, Gaia, our ecosystem is a sacred place. We are sacred in a sacred place. If we can remember the original story that air, water, soil, oak trees and even mushrooms are just as sacred as we are—that humanity belongs to the earth, then we will restore our symbiotic bond with our ecosystem. By reforming this bond of love, the earth will be able to heal herself and humanity as well.
Visit www.culturequake.org to learn more about Culturequake the book and the online Magazine. ©2009 Chuck Burr LLC
Oneida Kincaid: Another Way of Knowing
Chuck Burr: Culturequake: The Fall of Modern Culture and the Rise of Earth Culture
Tom Dale: Topsoil and Civilization
P.A. Yeomans: Water for Every Farm
Peter H., Jr. Kahn: The Human Relationship with Nature: Development and Culture
The United Nations: Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
Leonardo Boff: Resurgence magazine, November/December 2002
Masanobu Fukuoka: The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming