Together we bring forth a world.1 This world is just one of an infinite number of possible worlds. The world is not an objective world out there to be known, a representation, nor do we create a world in abstraction (nihilism) denying the surrounding reality. But rather we constantly bring forth a world together trough love. This world brought forth by a culture is an emergent phenomenon involving the world as it is, our biology, and our collective understanding and expectation of that world. We see a tree as a tree because we expect to see a tree. Everyone else in our culture sees basically the same thing. We have a shared story, a shared filter. This filter allows us to distill out of the universe a shared story that we can communicate about and make decisions on. This behavior is biologically functional. A culture whose members could not synchronize behavior would not survive for long. Each culture has its own stories, its own behavioral patterns. Cultural health could be measured in how close its story and patterns synchronize with the story and patterns of the universe. Our culture is poisoning itself. To understand why we must understand as best we can the story and patterns of the universe as well as the story and patterns of our culture. We must question everything, especially our assumptions.
This is the first step; to understand that our epistemology, or way of knowing, is not inherently right or accurate. It is only one of an infinite number of possibilities. And it is merely adequate, at least for now. This understanding is power because it forces one to question everything. If you fully understand this you will never be the same. Our shared cultural beliefs allow us to behave; they filter all our perceptions and thoughts into a shared story. It is dangerous to question your cultures basic beliefs. It throws you into a vacuum of possibilities. Anything is possible. Humans can’t live for long in such a vacuum. Another story is necessary. Where do you turn for a relevant story? I believe we must look at how the universe operates, how the Earth and her ecosystems operate. We must understand the universe story and synchronize our story as best we can with it. To that end the rest of this paper will focus on understanding the universe story and how that compares with our modern cultures story. We will look at the real and immanent pathogenic affects of the dominant culture and your lifestyle. Finally we will see how we can act within the universe story to be the change the planet and her peoples so desperately need.
The American Story
Every person that has ever lived has been trained since birth to accept a specific story about how the world operates and his or her place in that world. You or I are no different. The American story is the story we were trained in. It is the received account. The ‘training’ is both formal and informal and no one really makes explicit that they are training you in the ‘American story’. When you go to school the context is just as important, if not more, than the content. You might be learning in history class how this or that great American president solved this or that great problem or you might be learning the importance of abstraction and individuation in mathematics but no matter what ‘subject’ you are in, you are sitting in a toxic box, forced to obey certain rules, forced to be one with the masses and separated into discrete autonomous units; ‘classes’. You are not only learning about manifest destiny or whatever other justification for hegemony and oppression but also and just as importantly, how to be obedient to authority, socially stratified into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and taught that learning happens only in specific contexts and in specific ways. So then the main function of the education system is obedience and the main function of the university system is to indebt young people, hooking its talons into young folks that were full of possibilities, pulling them into the American system. As Marshal Mcguin said “the medium is the message”. This is true everywhere not just in school. We were born into an existing social and technological/cultural infrastructure that is everywhere taken for granted. For most Americans food does not come from the Earth, it comes from the grocery store. A human that receives their sustenance from the Earth directly, tending and caring for their crop, will have a vastly different relationship with Gaia2 then a human that receives their sustenance from a grocery store or restaurant. It is taken for granted that travel by car is a necessary component of life. Our concepts of space and time are dictated by this ability of ours to transport ourselves at speeds far greater than our biology alone could manifest. A human that walks everywhere they need to go will have a much more intimate relationship with Gaia then a modern American. Breaking humans up socially into ‘nuclear’ family units where adults farm out their social responsibility to their elders and young is accepted without question. There are many ways for humans to organize themselves socially; ‘nuclear’ family units only work in a context where everyone is dependent on a centralized system that is abstract from the family and the land base. Family units that really don’t depend on each other leads to our social institutions of serial monogamy and children leaving the home to start their own ‘nuclear’ family. No one has to teach you these things. It simply just is. No one explicitly recognizes that they are training you in a specific story because they take their story for granted, they also have been trained in this story and swallow it hook line and sinker.
So it is both the ‘medium’ (the infrastructure both socially and built) as well as our beliefs that cocreate the American story. The medium and the beliefs cocreate each other as a moving boundary, that is, as the beliefs change the medium changes and as the medium changes the beliefs change. Reciprocal cocreation. As an example our beliefs informed us that the land is basically like a machine, apply certain inputs: water, nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, and receive outputs of food. Our beliefs on the importance of increased scale i.e. the more a person can accomplish in the least time, regardless of ‘side affects’, led to the introduction of the tractor which drastically increased the amount of land a farmer could operate in a given time. These beliefs, among others, led to the ‘green revolution’ which for a short duration3 pulsed the amount of food a farmer could grow per unit area and increased the amount of land one farmer could have in production. The ‘green revolution’ led to farmland consolidation and massive relocation of farmers to cities. This led to more people being divorced from their land base, which led to more people able to see the land organism as a machine, which led to further acceptance and application of ‘green revolution’ ideas which led to further land consolidation and rural to urban migration…Another example involves the automobile and humans relationships to the land. Our beliefs of the importance of the speed of transportation led to the creation of the automobile which led to people driving everywhere and the creation of an infrastructure that relied on the automobile which led to people believing it vital to transport themselves at velocities far past biological thresholds which led to the continued creation and utilization of the automobile…or was it that the ability to transport ourselves with say the horse or steam engine or sail boat that changed peoples conception of the importance of place and allowed for the belief of the need for fast transport? Either way I think we can see that the medium and beliefs cocreate each other in a positive feedback or accelerated manner.
Earlier I said that no one explicitly recognizes they are training you in a specific story because they also have been trained in it and embody it. This is true for just about everyone in your daily life, parents, friends, teachers, folks in the media, but it isn’t entirely true. Up until the Hitler regime in Germany made propaganda a bad word the American establishment used it freely. Now they call it public relations. In fact American power found Hitler and the German propaganda machine so impressive that they hired several of the German fascists to help them brainwash Americans. American power knows full well that it takes you the citizen/consumer to create the American system. In a totalitarian regime the powers that be use physical coercion to create supreme social inequality. People live in a constant state of fear, they know that the situation is unjust but they have no power to change the situation. In America the story is much different. Although large portions of our population, minorities and poor, are violently subdued the majority of Americans cocreate intense social inequality (1% of the population owning 90% of the wealth) happily.4 We seem to have so many options available to us but they are all in the same context and support the same system. What collage should I attend? Coke or Pepsi or if you’re a green bean5 Odwalla or G.T kombuha? Burger king or McDonald’s? Democrat or Republican? There is so little difference between these options that they are basically non-options. It’s like a parent fooling their child. If a parent wants their child to go outside they don’t ask them “honey do you want to go outside?” instead they ask, “do you want to wear your blue jacket or red jacket?” The options that are presented to us are all a part of a system that is destroying the planet. Republicans and democrats are two factions of the same party: the business party. If you are a vegan you are supporting extractive monoculture agriculture, if you are an omnivore you are supporting extractive monoculture agriculture, both are destroying the planet. The propaganda system is brilliant at turning good will into corporate profit at the expense of Gaia.
I was in an airport during the U.S attack on Fuluja a large city in Iraq. CNN was blasting from T.V. sets all over the airport. They were talking about the attack but in a curious way for a ‘free country’. Reporters used the government’s names for the war and the battles, they hired generals to ‘inform’ the public of what was happening and they used theatric affects to paint a picture where Uncle Sam was the hero. They had an online poll, the question was ‘will the U.S be successful in its attack on Fuluja?’ Asking a question or having a debate on top of assumptions strengthens the assumptions; 1-because they remain unsaid and 2-because the debate makes it feel like we are flushing out the issue and have healthy dissent. Well what are the assumptions here: that its o.k. for the U.S to destroy a city killing countless innocent civilians. Can you imagine an Iraqi army attacking, say, Baltimore and Iraqi television having a poll on whether or not the Iraqis will be successful? Maybe the poll should have been ‘Is it o.k. for the U.S to terrorize civilians and destroy cities to enrich itself?’ People don’t know the right questions to ask. As they were talking about this war crime the commentators attitude was warm and welcoming, a large American flag was waving in the background with bright colors and soft music was playing. They went to a commercial and when they came back the subject had been changed along with the whole context. The warm and fuzzies were replaced with dark menacing sounds, dark colors and dark complexions on the faces of the commentators. Now they were talking about illegal immigrants and how evil they were. Of course they didn’t mention that the Mexican migration north coincided with massive Mexican economic meltdown, which coincided with NAFTA the north American free trade agreement. It was no accident that the same year Clinton signed NAFTA into affect the U.S built a wall along the Mexican border. This type of behavior by the media is ubiquitous it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about CNN, fox news or the New York Times. There seems to be such diversity in the media but that diversity is a smoke and mirrors game as there is tremendous consolidation in the media e.g. Rupert Murdoch owns a large percentage of media share. The vast majority of the media filter and distort ‘facts’ creating a story that synchronizes with the American story. And it’s everywhere, like an echo chamber. I have given in the footnotes references to further reading that will enlighten this subject further so I just want to mention one more example to flush out just exactly what is going on. The U.S government is generally recognized as the best example of government the world has ever seen. Sure it makes mistakes but its intentions are good. For example when we go to war it is thought that we go to war to spread peace, democracy, and freedom. Bush the second actually said; “you know when we talk about war we are really talking about peace and democracy.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. The only time the establishment talks about democracy is to talk about the problem of democracy. That is true from the founding fathers until now. James Madison and the like were terrified by democracy, if the masses rule then our wealth will be spoiled they thought. That is why only rich (had to own a lot of land) white men could vote. America goes to war to consolidate and expand wealth and power. One example of this is the Spanish civil war. This conflict occurred in the early 1930’s before WW2. Spanish anarchists6 were fighting Spanish, Italian and German fascists. Both Britain and the U.S entered the war in the form of weapons, $ and some troops. Guess whose side they joined; the anarchists: people fighting for freedom and dignity to be returned to the masses, or the fascists: people fighting for the consolidation of wealth and power into as few hands/corporations as possible? Well both the U.S and Britain supported the fascists. WW2 was no different. The U.S didn’t fight to help the Jews, they fought to consolidate power. Northern Italy freed itself in 1943, instituted anarchy and got along just fine until the Americans ‘freed’ them in 1944. The CIA and military got right to work murdering anarchy leaders, rigging elections, and reinstalling fascist power. This is all available to read in CIA documents, it just takes you to care to make time to understand just what’s going on.
So let us flush out a little bit of the American or first world story, I’m sure it will sound pretty familiar. Everyone deserves a nice house on a small yard with a couple of cars, a big television set, and some array of fancy toys. Grocery stores should be stocked with food and gas stations with gas. The infrastructure of roads, sewer, water, and energy are taken for granted and when they are thought about it is how can we keep them going and improve on them so more people have access to the ‘grid’. Everyone has the right to work hard creating a niche for themselves in this system and enriching themselves. Those that are rich are those that have worked hard and deserve it. Poor people are generally lazy and stupid. The system of American governance, while not perfect, is the best model of governance the world has ever seen. It is there to ensure the continued existence and proliferation of our way of life. Its intentions are basically good. Wars are started to spread peace and democracy. This model of life with individual importance at its peak will lead to a culture that is technologically advanced and bring prosperity to the masses.
Just over a billion of us seven billion humans live this type of lifestyle, a lifestyle we would call ‘first world’. It is this lifestyle that is killing the Earth. It is your lifestyle that is killing the Earth. So many think that the system is all screwed up and lament and complain thinking they are morally and ethically in the right. Unfortunately the vast majority of caring people are cocreators of the suicide culture. Mother Earth is in dire straits right now. Deserts are spreading across the continents and oceans, persistent and ubiquitous biocides accumulate in every nook and cranny, species going extinct every hour and a runaway climate nightmare7. Numbers are numbing and the shear magnitude of the ‘environmental’ problems right now tends to lead people to apathy. Lets have the courage to see clearly; if the American way of life continues we will have rendered the most fecund and beautiful corner of the universe into a second Venus. Take a deep breath inhaling all of the Earth and her creatures, with each breath I can feel the trees and bugs and animals of Gaia. Now imagine, the not so distant future if this culture keeps on going, the air is thick with carbon dioxide and the hydrogen sulfide burns your lungs, your body wants to breath, fights to breath but every breath brings pain, blood flows from your lungs and is hacked onto the barren lifeless Earth. Are big Macs, SUV’s and reality T.V worth it? Or from a green bean perspective; are tofu sandwiches, hybrid cars and traveling all over for our entertainment worth it? I am not trying to place blame in an angry defeating kind of way but rather so that we can see clearly our role in the system we despise. We must be honest with ourselves and each other so that we can have the courage to make the changes necessary to align our morality and ethics.
People who care about the ‘environment’ like to blame politicians or corporations not knowing that it is their way of life that creates those politicians, corporations and ‘environmental’ problems. Every time you fill up at the gas station you are saying, ‘here chevron I support you please take my $50 and continue raping the Earth and her peoples.’ Imagine driving to a world trade organization (WTO) protest, you’re angry at those nasty corporations and politicians but your way of life needs them and creates them. The corporations are brilliant propagandists. Peoples concerns about the ‘environment’ lead to increased corporate wealth. How many ‘all natural’ or ‘eco’ products do you own or use? The Earth does not need any more ‘green’ consumers.
As Dick Cheney said, “the American way of life is not negotiable”. If you care you must radically change your way of life. We must come together and create a new way of knowing, a new lifeway, and a new culture. A way of knowing a bear or tree would recognize. A lifestyle that cocreates an ecosystem, a culture that receives all of a communities needs from a land base while making that land base more fecund and resilient.
Cultural revolutions and existential crises
We are taught in school that all information is cumulative. That we are standing on top of a mountain of compiled information and it is up to us to add to that mountain. All information is of the same kind and fits the same pattern, its accumulation is linear. In an ecological epistemology we recognize that all information is not of the same kind, that some information comes along that does not fit into the existing pattern of understanding, it is of a different kind and it demands attention. The information is either integrated or an entirely new pattern is formed, all of the old information is reorganized and thus becomes entirely new information. At an individual level we call this existential crisis while at the cultural level we call this revolution.8 The accumulation of information is not linear. There is not one mountain but several hills and you are standing on one of them, you could move to another one or create your own. What I am attempting here is to describe two possible hills (two possible stories) and ask you to join me on the one I am calling ‘ecological’.
There is a difference between intellectually understanding something and embodying it. If you intellectually understand that the American way of life, your way of life, is destroying the Earths regenerative capabilities (you’re killing yourself) and you make little real change then you haven’t embodied the change, you’ve just linearly accumulated information onto your existing organization of information. If you embody the change you will radically reorganize everything you know into a new story that will naturally and inevitably create a new lifestyle, a lifestyle of a beneficial organism, not a parasite. When many of us come together with a new story cocreating our lifestyles together we create the next outer emergent domain, that of a regenerative culture.
The way of knowing, or epistemology, comes before lifestyle so let us compare the American epistemology with what I call an ecological epistemology.
|American Epistemology||Ecological Epistemology|
|Survival of the Fittest||Survival of the Fit|
|Organisms Mirroring Environment||Organisms Co-creating Environment|
|Genetic Determinism||Autopoetic Network|
|Cartesian Split||Embodied Consciences|
|Linear Causation||Non-Linear Dynamics|
|Objective Observer||Enmeshed Observer|
|Teleological outlook||Non-teleological Outlook|
|Linear Accumulation of Information||Reorganization|
|Barter Economy||Gift Economy|
|Impositional Authority||Authentic Authority|
We have been trained in reductionism, reducing systems to their parts ad infinitum, and in order to move on to a different way of knowing we need to understand the opposite of reductionist thinking namely: thinking in systems. This new way of knowing is both holistic and biological; it is the opposite of how most of us were trained to think. How we think is so deeply ingrained in us that most of us don’t ever realize there are alternative ways of knowing. The limits to the dominant way of knowing in our culture, namely reductionism, is becoming increasingly evident as human and ecological systems continue to degrade. Thinking in systems is the foundation upon which regenerative ecological and social solutions can be implemented. We will relate this new way of knowing to agriculture, politics, interpersonal relationships, spirituality, history, ecology, biology, health, economics, crime and punishment as well as communication to come up with a pattern language for a regenerative society.
Reductionism and systems are two forms of logic and like all logic9 the reasoning is done with our brain. Generally our brain gets tricked into thinking its form of reasoning is the only way of knowing. Beyond that our brain is not the only neural center in our body that has the potential to create our way of knowing.10 The heart is made up of mostly neural cells and is a powerful neural center. Many cultures have been endowed with the heart as the originator of their consciousness as well as a powerful organ of perception. The solar plexus (our guts) is the other neural center and many Eastern traditions (thi chi, chi quoin) actively engage with this neural center, strengthening it. What would emerge from a healthy physiology/epistemology using all three neural centers would, I believe, be a human of the fullest potential. Our cultures overwhelming dominance of the brain and complete ignorance of the heart and solar plexus is a fatal mistake, and one we don’t even know we are making. Let us move on to introducing a different form of logic that has the power to reframe our well exercised dominant neural center.
Thinking in Systems
Reductionism-the breaking down of systems into their components and components down into components studying the most basic ‘building blocks’-has been extremely successful. So much so that Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg can say, “all the explanatory arrows point downwards”. The belief that if we can understand the basic building blocks and how they work we could know everything is so powerful that 18th century French natural philosopher Simone Leplace can say, “given the position and velocity of all particles in the universe a sufficient intelligence could determine the course of all future and past events.” Reductionism is what we have been trained in. The 20th century saw many incredible advances using the reductionist approach. Quantum mechanics started to understand and define the smallest of the small: atoms and quarks. In molecular biology scientists unraveled the structure of DNA and mapped the entire human genetic code. Hopes were high in both physics and biology that grand theoretical synthesis would occur and major practical applications would follow. Hopes have been deflated as little has come from it. No diseases have been cured just because we know the genetic code and no grand synthesis of quantum mechanics and relativity has happened. This is because the whole, whether we are talking about an organism or a molecule, is more then the sum of its parts. The reductionist approach is incredibly effective only when it’s dealing in the realm of the incredibly simple. Even in physics, the ‘hard science’, once we get past two bodies moving in space we get into trouble. You simply can’t reduce biology or sociology to physics. The reductionist approach does not take into account relationships and their nonlinear behavior. Relationships lead to emergence. For example, no matter how much we know about hydrogen and oxygen, we could know every detail, we could not predict the structure and fluid dynamics of water. Water emerges from their relationship. Emergence is everywhere, if we can’t explain water by understanding its parts how could we hope to understand a cell, organism or ecosystem, let alone love and laughter? The reductionist approach is concerned with quantity and precision while the systems approach is concerned with quality. We can not predict with precision future events, the universe is inherently creative, a notion that flies in the face of conventional wisdom-but we can predict the quality a system will have within a range. To do that we have to understand a little about how systems work.11
A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized displaying a consistent set of behavior that humans call a function for nonbiological systems and purpose for biological ones. The elements are things, the interconnections are information, flows, relationships, rules, attitude etc. and the function or purpose is found in the systems behavior and is generally relative to what the system is embedded in. The purpose of the system ‘liver’ is only found when we recognize it as part of a larger system, the body. As an example a football team is a system, the elements are the players, coaches, ball, and the field, its interconnections are the strategy, physics, rules, and the function or purpose is to make $ and win. The livers elements would be cells, its interconnections metabolism, energy flow, blood flow, and its function is to clean the blood.
Understanding systems: Stocks. A stock is a memory of changing flows within a system. It is measurable, it’s a store. The water in a lake is a stock. The stock decouples the input and output. In a lake the outflow of the lake is not directly coupled to the inflow instead it is coupled to the lake level. As the inflow increases it fills the lake and it is not until the lake is full that the outflow starts. The size of the stock, relative to its inputs and outputs, equates to the relative stability of the system, the bigger the lake compared to its input the more stable the outflow will be. A system can have more then one stock.
Feedback. A feed back loop is formed when changes in a stock affect the flows into or out of the same stock. Balancing feedback (also called a negative feedback) keeps stocks stable, a thermostat is a good example of a balancing feedback, as the temperature in the room (the stock) goes up the thermostat tells the furnace to turn off so the room temperature goes down. Runaway feedback loops (also called positive feedback) are reinforcing. As the stock increases it forces the increase of the input which forces the increase in the stock etc. Soil erosion is a good example, if a hillside forest is cleared rain or wind erodes the soil making the site less hospitable to life which causes more soil to erode which causes less life and more soil erosion etc.
Non-renewable resources (oil) are stock limited while renewable resources (fish) are flow limited. Delays in feedback loops lead to oscillation of the stock. A classic example is predator/prey relationships. When the prey (rabbit) population is high the foxes start to expand their population, more foxes mean less rabbits. As the fox population is reaching its peak the rabbit population is plummeting. Less rabbits mean less foxes and they start to die off.
Foresight is essential because of this. For example there is a delay between pollution emissions and its concentration in the environment to notice harm. By the time it’s noticed it’s too late and the poison will persist in the environment for a long time.
Example of a system; thermostat.
This system will work within a threshold, if all of the house windows open the runaway loop will dominate and the system will tip to a new set point. Any system resists change because of feedback loops, if a window is cracked in winter the thermostat will just work harder to keep the room temperature fairly constant. But if all the windows are open positive feedback kick the system to a different set point quickly. This is not a linear phenomenon. The system maintains relative homeostasis in the face of disturbance until the disturbance overwhelms the system and kicks it into a different set point. So in this system there is two set points one is a function of what the thermostat is set at and the other is a function of the outside temperature. Two set points exist here not a continuum of possible states. We will look at this in more detail when we talk about biology and evolution.
All systems are connected. As we saw, the system liver is embedded in the system body and the system body is embedded in the system community and ecosystem. Ecosystems are embedded in the system Earth. Likewise the liver is made up of subsystems; cells-organelles-molecules-atoms-quarks. . The basic pattern of the universe is so elegant: individual autonomy enmeshed in a functionally interdependent web. A tree can be seen as an individually autonomous being co-creating the emergent phenomenon forest or an emergent phenomenon itself co-created by individually autonomous cells. It just takes a change in perspective. No perspective is more right than another. Both the individual autonomy and web of functional interdependence are necessary to bring forth such a fecund and creative universe.
Figure showing the basic pattern of the universe; individual autonomy enmeshed in functional interdependence. Each circle represents a new emergent domain where inner order emergent phenomenon come together to create new domains of creativity. Water is an emergent phenomenon emerging from an inner order domain of emergent phenomenon hydrogen and oxygen. It takes all of the inner order emergent phenomenon to create the next layer out emergent domain and thus all the emergent phenomenon within that domain. For example within the emergent domain biology we find emergent phenomenon organisms cocreating an outer emergent domain ecosystems.
What Kind of a System is Life?
Looking at different aspects of our epistemology through the lens of systems thinking is an interesting exercise to see just how different everything becomes.
All living beings have the same organization, they differ from each other in their structure. Organization = relations that must exist for a system to be of the same class. Structure = the components and relations that exist to make a system real. Life’s organization = autopoesis which simply means self-making. Life is:
- organizationaly closed: Autopoetic metabolic network bounded by a membrane
- materialy and energetically open: needs to take in food and excrete waste. There is a continual flow of energy through the system.
- operates far from equilibrium: equilibrium=dead.
All of these are characteristics of non-linear systems. All systems (including biological ones) are internally determined. Any change within a system is dictated by the system itself. You can trigger a system but you can’t direct or specify it. The system is structurally determined, so the environment doesn’t ‘select’. If you kick a rock you can predict with precision its trajectory, if you kick a dog you cannot predict its behavior. A rock is an unenergized chunk of matter. The only thing that affects it is force (energy). A dog is an energized system (it eats) so it can be affected by information. The information triggers an already energized system.
Organisms are not passive prisoners on spaceship Earth molded by natural selection into forms conducive with survival. Evolution is not a function of natural selection but rather one of structural coupling and natural drift. Structural coupling occurs whenever there is a history of recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between 2+ systems. Organisms trigger changes in structurally determined environment and the environment triggers change in the structurally determined organism.12 This results in a history of mutual congruent structural changes. As we will see later organisms cocreate their environment just as much as the environment cocreate organisms.13 Evolution is not a process in which there is an environmental world to which living beings adapt to progressively optimizing their use of it. Evolution occurs as a phenomenon of structural drift through its phylogeny14. It is a process in which organism and environment remain in a continuous structural coupling.
Life is nonlinear. Reductionist logic and science has always steered clear of nonlinear phenomenon (the vast majority of phenomenon) because it is too complex to deal with. Specifically no mathematics could handle it. With the advent of more powerful computers mathematicians have come up with a new mathematics to deal with nonlinear systems. A mathematics not of precision and quantity but one of quality and pattern. Even the most powerful computers cannot predict with precision the trajectory of nonlinear systems because of the sensitivity of the system to its initial conditions. A small change in the initial conditions can have profound consequences for the system because of multiple amplifying feedback loops. This is called the butterfly phenomenon for the half joking assertion that a butterfly flapping its wings in New York today can cause a typhoon in Japan tomorrow.
The most important achievement of this new mathematics for the average person is that it gives us a new language to understand nonlinear systems. The thermostat example earlier showed us that that system had two set points that where not linearly coupled. At a critical point of instability (all windows open in winter) we saw the emergence of new order (a new set point that was a function of the outside temperature). Let us now see how this new language can change our perspective on evolution and development.
A Fresh Look at Evolution and Development
The Darwinian account of evolution holds three tenants as most important.
- variation exists within populations (copious, small in extent, and undirected)
- this variation is inheritable
- more organisms are born than will reproduce
If the initial conditions stray far and go over a threshold the organism/ecosystem will be attracted to a different basin and have a different form. In evolution we call this punctuated equilibrium. We see the emergence of new order at critical points of instability. These bifurcation points in populations we would call speciation. This is the basic form of change that we saw earlier as internally coherent systems maintain relative homeostasis with negative feedback until these processes are overwhelmed and positive feedback kicks the system quickly into another homeostatic mean or archetype. The eye can be seen as an archetype or basin of attraction. Given certain initial conditions and context the eye naturally and inevitably forms. The vertebrate body plan is another. Leaf patterns another, as there are only three archetypical leaf patterns.15
Whether we are talking about hydrogen, stars, organisms or ecosystems their creation is a robust natural process. Natural form arises from the dynamic principles embodied in the organization of the system. Instead of seeing the universe as a blank slate open to an infinity of forms within a continuum we can see that there are basic organizations of energy we could call patterns or archetypes. The basic logic of the universe is not induction or deduction but abduction-or a pattern language or metaphor. In biology we call this homology as biologists look for shared patterns of organization across genera. Pure universal energy organizes itself into discrete energy patterns called quarks which organize themselves into discrete energy patterns called hydrogen, elements organize themselves into discrete energy patterns we call molecules-cells-organisms-ecosystems-Gaia. Perhaps its not to far fetched to think that a distant planet with life would harbor somewhat familiar patterns of organization in its organisms.
Environmentalism vs. Deep Ecology.
Our relation to the Earth, to Gaia, is fundamental to our understanding of these epistemologies. In the dominant culture we see ourselves as separate from nature and talk about resources and wilderness. We call ecologically enlightened thinking environmentalism. Wilderness is defined as a place where humans and their acts don’t dominate. We are told to leave only footsteps and take only photographs. The majority of human action would not be classified as ‘natural’, in fact the more natural something is the more it is separate from humans. By classifying some places as ‘wilderness’ we allow ourselves to pollute and spoil other places. We see ourselves as something of another kind, something inherently flawed, yet better than nature. Bees and butterflies, oaks and pines, know how to make beauty in nature but humans don’t. I believe an ecological epistemology understands that humans and nature are one and the same, made of the same pattern and fabric. Instead of environmentalism we have Deep Ecology and we talk of communities. Humans are seen as beneficial organisms and functional components of an ecosystems organization.
We don’t completely understand how the climate system operates and all the modeling done thus far is not able to predict the rate of change that we are seeing. These models are deemed adequate if they are able to predict the historical climate with the data entered. But the historical (last few thousand years) has been the change of the system around a mean. What we are witnessing now is the punctuation event. Also these models do not take into account biological systems and their great effect/creation on the climate system. For example, it’s estimated that over half of the rain that falls on the Amazonian basin is a direct result of the forests transpiration and cloud seeding. Once these forests are felled the conditions that allow for their existence are lost. This is one example of a negative feedback loop switching to a positive feedback loop. Biological control over the climate and other Earth systems is a fascinating subject and the examples could go on and on.16 It is amazing to me that none of the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) models take biology into account. It’s no wonder that the best models are not able to map the territory we are headed towards. I feel it’s important for those of us who use IPCC models to guide our land-use decisions to understand that this institution is handcuffed by the powers that be. Governments and corporations, who have great interest in maintaining the status quo, have to agree to every word printed in their public documents. The fact that the IPCC is able to use as strong of language as they do is a testament to the situation we find ourselves in. Change is not a linear phenomenon and the climate system we are headed to will not be recognizable.
From a reductionist perspective history is simply a matter of ‘facts’. From a systems perspective there are no isolated facts. Everything is connected. Any listing of ‘facts’ is a subjective phenomenon as there are an infinite number of ‘facts’ and the ones that we choose to include in our history are the ones that we are looking for. If you’re an American fascist you will choose to list facts of this or that president fighting this or that great war for this or that great and benevolent purpose. We pretend that history and its telling are objective, that there is a ‘history’ to be taught. From a systems perspective we recognize that no ‘objective’ history is possible, that all histories are the telling of stories from a specific perspective. Histories relevance then is not in some objective retelling but rather of gaining an understanding of our place in the world through stories. Stories understand emergence and nonlinear systems much better than a simple listing of events. Stories from different peoples perspectives and even stories from an objects perspective would allow us to feel the nature of what has passed and what has helped shape us.
A systems output is decoupled from its input because of a stock. In a lake the outflow is not coupled to the inflow but rather it is a function of the lake level. The lake level changes in response to the inflow, in time the changing lake level affects the outflow. Understanding this behavior helps us understand people’s behavior. Someone’s behavior or reaction says more about their stock (personality) then the input. If you are conversing with someone you are triggering an already energized system, they are primed to behave as they are behaving because that is how they are used to behaving. Their behavior is more of a function of their stock then the input (what just happened).
We are taught that the individual is the most important element in our system (society). We are taught to maximize our individuality in the system, for example by concentrating as much wealth and power as possible. Only in a selfish world where we don’t depend on each other could our societies marriage system work, i.e. serial monogamy as the divorce rate is up to 60%. Most people in America are repulsed by arranged marriage, it is seen as an impingement on our freedom. In a society where people depend on each other and the land with their lives arranged marriages make a lot of sense. I’ve been to India and have been in many houses where the husband and wife were arranged and in love. To me this is a beautiful expression of humanity, the ability to intimately love and cocreate a life with just about anyone. Marriage is a big deal because having children is a big deal and raising a child takes a village. In our culture basic human responsibilities like raising children and caring for elders are farmed out and lifeways are not tied to an ecology and can be picked up and moved half way around the world in a heartbeat.
From a systems perspective we see that we as individuals are part of a greater body, society and ecology, and that we should optimize our individual selves in that greater system. The Dalai Lama calls this “enlightened self interest” as it is in our best interest to act ‘selflessly’.
Modern medicine was born from reductionist thinking. If there is a problem with say your liver the western doctor is only going to concern himself with your liver. A holistic doctor coming from a systems perspective is going to ask all about you; your lifestyle, happiness etc. This is because he/she knows that your whole system: physical body, emotional body, and context, is responsible for your health and an illness in any one place is an indication of a systemic stress.
Competition vs. Cooperation
How we understand relationships is an indication of how we will behave towards everything we are related to. In the dominant culture we see the majority of relationships as competition based. Whether we are talking about politics, economics or biology the dominant theme is competition. Resources are seen as the limiting factor. People are encouraged to out compete others in order to succeed. Life is seen as the survival of the fittest. There are tight boundaries that only a few patterns of organization (organisms, species, businesses, etc.) will squeeze through. What is not allowed is forbidden. An ecological epistemology understands that competition is part of a healthy system but when seen from a different perspective this competition is cooperation. This was made explicit by Eugene Odum a 20th century ecologist with his tripariate altruism; 1/3 rabbit energy to rabbit-metabolism, 1/3 rabbit energy to higher order system-foxes, 1/3 rabbit energy to lower order systems-poo to soil. Cooperation is ubiquitous; it is everywhere we look, in fact it is what we see. Life would not be possible without cooperation. No organisms can survive in isolation. No organism can photosynthesize and decompose. If it weren’t for the decomposers plants would soon starve to death and with them everything else. Most relationships are mutualisms. Just about every plant has associations with fungus and bacteria: the plant fixing carbon in the form of sugar, the bacteria fixing nitrogen and the fungus extracting hard to access minerals and water. All of life is working together to cocreate the conditions conducive to life. Instead of survival of the fittest we have survival of the fit. Broad boundaries with many patterns of organization are allowed. What is not forbidden is allowed. The healthiest social systems embody cooperation. What one person does well another struggles with. Decisions are made with the understanding that everyone carries a piece of the truth and that the outcome will be best when all beings are heard.
An epistemology founded on competition is saturated with fear. We must always be on guard and in control. An epistemology founded on cooperation is saturated with trust. The dichotomy competition/cooperation is a dichotomy that only exists in the human realm. Outside of the human realm we have coordination. Everything in the universe is coordinated. Some elements are so coordinated that their relationships produce emergent phenomenon i.e. the coordination of once separate organism prokaryotic cell and mitochondria produced the emergent phenomenon eukaryotic cell.
Invasive Species or Weeds to the Rescue
What is a weed and what are we rescuing? A weed as commonly understood is an organism that we don’t want where it is. This definition doesn’t fit very well when we are talking about rescuing something, so lets define weeds as opportunistic and expansive. Opportunistic and expansive organisms are generally (in this country) considered invasive destroyers of native ecologies. It is a great epistemological leap to go from invasive Gaian destroyers to opportunistic Gaian rescuers but one that is vital if we are going to transition our invasive, Gaian destroying culture into a permaculture to the rescue.
To undertake this great epistemological leap we need to understand the state of our planetary self-regulating system: Gaia17. We need to know her life story, something of her physiology18 and the nature of change and development.19
The Nature of Opportunistic Organisms
How anyone can hate any organism is beyond me. Organisms are simply fulfilling/expressing themselves and in so doing they co-create ‘other’ selves: emergent beings we call communities or ecosystems just as the organisms themselves are emergent beings co-created by organs, tissues and cells in a fractal pattern containing the whole universe: quarks, elements, molecules, cells, organisms, ecosystems, Gaia. That art thou. The basic pattern of the universe is so elegant: individual autonomy enmeshed in a functionally interdependent web. A tree can be seen as an individually autonomous being co-creating the emergent phenomenon forest or an emergent phenomenon itself co-created by individually autonomous cells. It just takes a change in perspective. No perspective is more right than another. Both the individual autonomy and web of functional interdependence are necessary to bring forth such a fecund and creative universe. Some would take this reasoning and surmise that opportunistic organisms are like a cancer killing itself. To see them as vital components of Gaia is to transition our understanding of ecology from competition based to cooperation based.
An early and fundamental problem in ecology was that of diversity. Why do we find such tremendous diversity? Why instead don’t some super-competitive organisms dominate? From an epistemology saturated with the competitive meme this question makes sense, a problem exists: why does diversity dominate? From a cooperative perspective there is no problem a priori, sure we should study diversity asking how but not why. This a priori assumption of competition has deep roots and has inflicted much pain to us humans and Gaia, it gave birth to invasive biology and is ubiquitous in our culture; we find it in politics, economics, interpersonal relationships, etc. What we see in Gaia and the whole of the universe is cooperation. Even competition is seen at another scale as cooperation as Eugene Odum20 made explicit with his tripartite altruism: 1/3 rabbit energy to rabbit-metabolism, 1/3 of rabbit energy to higher order systems-foxes, and 1/3 energy to lower order systems-poo/soil. Cooperation is everywhere we look-its what we see. In a very real way the deer depend on the wolf to stay strong. We call the wolves the protectors of the forest for too many deer equal too much stress on the vegetation they depend on. The Inuit knew well that if it were not for wolves’ predation both the caribou herds and the tundra would weaken and die.
A common and simplistic understanding of ecosystem energy flows is that there is a finite amount of energy to be ‘spent’ by organisms. If a new organism enters an ecosystem the energy they need to live is taken away from other organisms. These ‘invading’ organisms are displacing ‘native’ organisms. Using this linear logic Robert May, an early theoretical ecologist, made waves when his models (using simple linear equations) stated that diversity does not lead to stability, the opposite of field ecologists common sense. Like all theoretical models Bull shit in Bull shit out. What modern theoretical ecologists are finding using more advanced nonlinear equations meshes very well with common sense. An organism doesn’t just use energy it also creates energy, creates niches, essentially creates more cycles in the system. We can visualize it as a three dimensional sphere where the surface area of the sphere are the available niches. When a new organism enters the system they dimple the surface of the sphere creating more niches and thus more available energy. The more texture to the surface of the sphere the more niches and the more energy. Diversity creates the condition for more diversity.
If we see opportunistic organisms as invasive problems we need to ask ourselves with Mollison21: how is the problem the solution? At the very least we can think of opportunistic expansive organisms as pulses of energy in a system. At a deeper level transitioning our epistemology from competition to cooperation based gives us a change in perspective so we don’t have a problem to start with. Us humans will probably always find problems and we are not creative enough to find solutions to every problem we see e.g. we try and manage reed canary grass right out of our gardens (welcoming it all the same on dam walls). I have no problem with humans’ actively co-creating ecosystems; we just need to be working from an epistemology that more aligns with how ecosystems work. Shifting from a competitive model to a cooperative one allows us to elegantly work with nature more often than not. I’d like to present a couple of examples from our land. When we first got here, 2006, we had a beautiful old red oak tree right next to one of our pond sites. Unfortunately it was splitting down the middle and dying. We figured she didn’t have very long so we planted a buartnut right underneath her as well as around the rest of the pond. We planted these walnuts right into black ash saplings. If we were working from a competitive perspective we would see those ash saplings as competing for water and nutrients with our walnuts. We would kill them; and simplify the ecosystem to ‘help’ our crop tree. From a cooperative perspective we would ask ourselves if these ash saplings would help the walnuts. Maybe the limiting factor is sugar and a healthy mycelia layer will share the photosynthetic goods. The ash also shades the soil keeping it moist, its roots keep the soil in good tilth, its leaf fall mulches and the density of the planting keeps all trees growing straight. We didn’t cut those ash and our walnuts are growing great, some 4’ a year. When it does come time to thin the stand we will harvest much bigger ash poles. Another example involves speckled alder, a nitrogen fixing early succession shrub. When we first bought the land much of it was old-field being reclaimed by alder. Our neighbors saw the alder as an invasive nuisance and we were encouraged to remove it. Offers to borrow brush hogs and bulldozers were politely turned down. We saw alder as a perfect nurse crop for fruit trees as she casts a light shade creating a moisture and temperature moderated microclimate all the while creating more fertility. So instead of bulldozing out the ‘problem’ we planted right into the thickets. Now every spring we cut the larger poles flushing nitrogen and getting good growth from our fruit trees with no imported inputs. We make sure to leave the smaller dimension alder so she stays strong. We need to find allies in nature instead of enemies.
The concept of succession in a competitive based epistemology is one of progressive development to a climax community. A teleological process akin to the idea of our postmodern culture progressing to some technological wonder world. Neither the technological wonder world nor a stable climax community will ever exist. Even ‘stable’ climax communities (self replacing communities e.g. sugar maple/basswood/hemlock forests in my neck of the woods) undergo a slow decline due to nutrient loss initiating a disturbance to an earlier succession fertility building community. I hope ecology changes its language when it deals with ‘succession’ as this word implies one community necessarily following another in a stepwise pattern. Perhaps ‘community dynamics’ would better describe the situation. Modern ecology has moved past this naïve conception of succession or community dynamics to a shifting mosaic model in which every ‘level’ of the dynamic is represented over a wide geographic area creating a mosaic that shifts based on local dynamics. One level does not necessarily ‘succeed’ to a next ‘higher’ level. Each patch of the mosaic is autonomous but functionally interdependent with the rest of the community. As conditions in each patch change, organisms are nearby to colonize/create new niches further changing the conditions. A vital element in this mosaic is organisms that thrive on disturbed/bare earth. These organisms import most of the fertility to the whole community as they pass through different regions of the mosaic. Nitrogen fixers, dynamic accumulators as well as animal attractors abound here. I always think of blackberry as a nitrogen fixer because of all the bird feces they attract to them. Most opportunistic organisms are fertility enhancing pioneers. These organisms are vital for Gaian well being…especially now. A tremendous volume of Gaia is now in early succession, her fabric now is less a mosaic then it is a whitewash. We need these opportunistic expansive organisms to change the conditions of these barren patches making them available to Gaian creativity. Agricultural fields, suburban and urban sprawl and monoculture forestry plantations are not the only ecotypes desperately in need of these opportunistic organisms; Gaia’s ecosystems that are structurally coupled to an anachronistic climatic regime are also in need.
Trust in Gaia
Just prior to the anthropocene22 Gaia was more diverse and fecund than she ever had been. If ‘invasive’ organisms really are a problem why didn’t we find ecosystems dominated by super-organisms gobbling up all the primary productivity like some Chevron or Monsanto gobbling up all the GDP23? Organisms have always been on the move24 and Gaia has been through great disturbances before, always managing to come through it diverse and fecund. No biologist was pointing an invasive finger at lupine (even though they do on road cuts or old fields) when it was the first to colonize the blast zone on mount St. Helens. Lupine started to change the conditions making them inhabitable to others. Soon a relatively diverse ecosystem was spreading across the landscape. Climate change isn’t the only great disturbance for Gaia now. Acid rain, nitrification of soils, habitat loss, ubiquitous and persistent biocides (life killers)…..
Ultimately we must trust in Gaia. Trust that at her pace she can make it through this great anthropogenic transition. Trust that she can rebuild fecundity and resilience. Trust that these ‘problems’ so many of us see at the micro-scale, earthworms in North American soils, zebra mussels in the great lakes, kudzu etc. are Gaias way of resetting the system and recreating her organs in the heavier and more insulative air and hotter sun25 of the anthropocene.
Set The Initial Conditions
In ‘a fresh look at evolution and development’ I argued that from a systems perspective development and evolution are robust natural processes. That the forms generated in the universe are highly probable. Instead of seeing forms as perched precariously on top of a fitness peak, pushed and held up there by natural selection we can view forms as flowing naturally and inevitably to a basin of attraction. We just need to invert the landscape from one of highly improbable fitness peaks to highly probable basins of attraction. Switch the peaks for the valleys. The organism sets the initial conditions in a particular context and as long as the initial conditions remain within the watershed the rest happens naturally and inevitably. Diverse and fecund ecosystems are natural and inevitable if the initial conditions are met. Gaia has seen many severe disturbances before and come out of it diverse and fecund. What sets this anthropogenic transition apart is the habitat fragmentation we find all over the planet that doesn’t allow for species migrations. One of the reasons that the flora of the eastern forests of North America is much more diverse then Europe is that the mountain ranges in America run north south were as in Europe they run east west. In America we have valleys running north south that act as corridors of latitudinal migration during climate change events. In Europe the valleys run east west so species on the move during climactic transitions must scale mountains to get to the next valley north. Today there are no corridors of migration. Habitats have been fragmented so severally that there hardly is any forest left. Also in prior climactic transitions each local habitat had unique genetics; that is there was a tremendous amount of in-species genetic diversity. A sugar maple in Georgia is vastly genetically different from a sugar maple in Main. These locally adapted species provided for the genetics necessary to cope with the challenges of dramatic climactic change. Today most of these locally adapted genetics are gone; ecologists call them ‘secrete extinctions’. The genetic stepping-stones of place no longer exist as a corridor of migration.
We humans are a good example of an opportunistic and expansive organism and like other weeds Gaia has a role for us. Gaia is at a critical point of instability and needs our help in the formation of new order. The pace and scale of this great anthropogenic transition is so intense that we humans need to actively transition degraded and damaged landscapes by planting early succession fertility and habitat building plants. 26 We need to set the initial conditions and let Gaia shake it out, as she always has.
We tend to throw around words like we know what we are talking about. ‘Democracy’, ‘freedom’, and ‘capitalism’ they fill the air like so many snowflakes giving definition to space. For those who feel the following is no more then mere semantics I ask them to trace the phylogeny of words to appreciate how they shape our thoughts, which give rise to our actions. Our singular and collective actions are rendering perhaps the most beautiful and profound corner of the universe into something only those tenacious and ubiquitous unicellulars can handle. Perhaps then we should take a look at some of these words to see if we can transform our actions to represent our morality.
So many quote Adam Smith but so few have read him. I do not intend to give a full exegesis of “The Wealth of Nations” but I would like to point out some obvious contradictions between Smiths “capitalism” and our modern economy. The ‘invisible hand’, as Smith argues, is an emergent phenomenon producing harmony and cooperation for the whole. The wealth of the nation, then, emerges from basically self-interested individuals and group’s whether it’s the businessman trying to make a buck or the consumer trying to save one.27 Those who use this thesis to defend their selfishness and greed fail to make note of the context in which this ‘invisible hand’ operates. This context includes a free market and informed consumers. Neither existed in Smiths time and neither exist now. Generally consumers are either lied to or the truth is hidden from them. Billions of dollars are spent to entice the public to consume a particular good or service or just to consume in general. Clearly there is some truth in advertising but the lies are ubiquitous. Perhaps what’s worse is what’s left unsaid. Genetically engineered foods are not even labeled. The FDA tells the public its ldl and cholesterol that are bad instead of admitting its processed food loaded with chemicals that’s making first worlders fat, stupid and lazy. Enough with that.
The modern economy is far from a free market. So many complain that we are a welfare nation and blame the poor. I agree that we are a welfare nation but I blame the ultra rich. Trillions of dollars are spent propping up the established corporations. The most blatant examples are called bailouts. Smiths ‘invisible hand’ like Darwins’ natural selection, would weed out those corporations that failed. After all the Phoenix needs ashes to rise again. Subsidies are just a different word for welfare. The world of Adam Smiths invisible hand has no room for subsidies. Subsidies alter the playing field giving some an unfair advantage while the uninformed consumers have no knowledge or power to select the most fit to create a harmonious and wealthy nation.
Capitalism has never existed and it likely never will. Like Darwin’s natural selection it is a fascinating hypothesis and it might work. But the world in which Smith envisioned his invisible hand is gone. His was a world of unfathomably large frontiers and ‘unlimited’ resources. Ours is a full world, a world in which we have reached a ‘peak’ and as they say it’s all down hill from here. A proper economy for our time must take into account a declining resource base and must be based, not on gold or silver as had been done or faith as is now done but on the land. The new economy must be an ecological economy, an economy that has at its base the regenerative capabilities of the land.
Democracy is another word we love to use in a masturbatory fashion. Hell we even start wars because we love it so much. It is absolutely amazing to me the power of the propaganda system. By the time you make it as a hotshot writer for the NY times or an anchorman for NBC you’ve got the system in your bones. No one in the establishment (most people) question it. Democracy does not, has not, ever existed! Just ask those slaves in Athens, or Thomas Jeffersons’ for that matter. People think it’s as if the right to vote for a representative makes a political system a democracy. Sure they say maybe technically we didn’t have a democracy at the beginning because only rich white men could vote but now every citizen (over 18) can vote. I don’t mean to sound semanticle but the ability to vote for a representative does not make a democracy. The ability to vote on and be an active part of decision-making does. Yes to be a democracy the House of Representatives would be pretty full. A couple hundred million people connected over the Internet might not cause as many logistical problems. Yes it could work, or we could have smaller nation states. I think my town of Russell would make a good size country. I could know everyone! That might be too big too…maybe just my watershed. We don’t have a democracy we have a representation theocracy.
Once the veil of democracy falls, light will be cast about so we can see just what the hell is going on. The idea in a representational theocracy is that the citizen is being represented. Any honest look into the situation shows clearly just who is being represented. We have a one party system called the business party, sure it might have two factions, the democrats and republicans, but that serves only to create the illusion of debate meanwhile allowing the agenda of the business community to eat its way into the future. Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy circa world war two defined fascism as the merger of the corporation and the state.
As the veil of capitalism and democracy washes from your eyes and the stark reality of a hegemonic and fascist system crystallizes realize it is you the citizen that creates this reality by supporting it. It has no power without you. The revolution comes by simply turning away from it and joining with your neighbors in the creation of a different reality.
Thankfully we have more options than the ones presented to us by the dominant culture, namely republican or democrat. Most Americans presume that their political system can be labeled ‘democracy’, that it is the best political system possible, and that we should help spread it far and wide using any means necessary. I presented a critique of this position earlier and offered an alternative perspective; the American political system is the biggest terrorist organization the world has ever seen and it is more clearly understood by the label ‘fascism’ i.e. the merger of corporations and the state. In our fascist country the public (tax payer) takes all the risk while the private sector (corporations) reap all the profits. You can see this in any sphere, take telecommunications; the public paid the expense to create the infrastructure necessary for television and radio and then allows private tyrannies (corporations) to use that infrastructure and reap all the profits. In a communist country the public sector would produce the infrastructure and reap all the profits, most likely not distributing the profits evenly to the citizenry.
In a democracy every citizen is involved in the decision making process directly and decisions are made by a vote and generally majority rules. Some have criticized democracy as the tyranny of the majority. Indeed this structure imposes on the minority the decisions of the majority. The word ‘imposition’ is very important here. If we want to have a political system that matches our ethics, e.g. every persons right to freedom, then we better remove imposition from politics. An impositional authority is an authority that must be respected regardless of your opinion on it. Authentic authority is when you seek out the advice of someone you respect, advice you can take or leave. For example, when we were building our house we experienced both forms of authority, we were forced by the state to accept the demands of an impositional authority-the inspector-whether we liked it or not. He imposed his ideas on us of how a house should be built, we did not seek his advice out nor respect it. We did seek out the advice of people we did respect because we were able to see what they had accomplished in similar situations, this is authentic authority. So then in politics we need to remove impositional authority and we need to have a decision making structure that involves everyone and gives each person an equal say. The word that most closely matches this is ‘anarchy’. Clearly the context in which anarchy would work would be limited to a population small enough for everyone to be able to know each other. I think our watershed would make a good size country. Just because there is no impositional authority does not mean that anyone can just do whatever he or she wants. When everyone knows each other and depends on each other then there is tremendous pressure to behave in a way that is respectable. Ostracism is the only overt means of punishment and is used when someone clearly does not wish to live in a manner that is respectful to the community.
Crime and Punishment
From a reductionist perspective crime and punishment is very simple, did he/she do it and if so they shall be punished. Technically its called rehabilitation but any look into the situation will tell us otherwise. From a systems perspective a criminal is an indication of systemic stress. It is not only the individual that is at fault but the whole system (society). We wouldn’t point an angry finger at Bob for raping Jane throwing him in jail to punish him we would ask (while making sure Jane is safe and getting what she needs) what has caused Bob to rape. What is wrong with the context? How can we fix the context to not create any more rapists and how can we help Bob become a good person. A powerful story was shared with me by my friend Nick, a Native American elder. A friend of his built a traditional village in northern WI to celebrate the Ojibwa culture. Three teenagers burned the village down. Instead of prosecuting them in court where they would have been sent to jail, likely to become hardened criminals, the village elders called the young men to join them in a ceremony. A group of elders brought the young men out to the burnt village and they praised them for hours. They lifted them up and showed them that they were beautiful. The young men decided to rebuild the village. They are now beneficial components of a healthy social system instead of parasitic criminals.
Money is energy. It is a medium of exchange and as such it just makes it easier to trade goods. If Peter wants some roofing tiles but only has pots to trade and the roofer doesn’t want pots it could get pretty complicated for Peter to work out a 3+ person trade agreement to get his tiles. This is where money comes in. It seems so simple. At this point our American dollars are only backed up by trust. It used to be that every U.S dollar printed was backed by real solid gold. The reason the bankers make so much money is that they engage in what’s called fractional reserve banking. Fractional reserve banking is when the bank spends more money then what they have. If you put $1,000 in the bank the bank will invest $2,000. This means that if all the people who have money in the bank go to the bank at once to take out their money the bank would not be able to pay half of them!28 Money is traded by the nanosecond around the globe by computers programmed to take advantage of minute changes in currency values or interest rates and over half of the money that is traded doesn’t exist except as bits on a screen and the other half only exists on paper! People are essentially trading on nation state futures. Money is no longer based on gold in fact its based on nothing real, they just keep on printing more and more and national debts just keep getting bigger and BIGGER. In order for money to make ecological sense it needs to be backed by something real. The very structure of the money system needs to be carefully thought out so that no impositional authority needs to be called on to settle disputes (as that impositional authority usually ends up cheating everyone). I believe that for money to be of value to us it needs to be backed by something that;
- can be made by anyone (so no centralized processing or recovery facility monopolizes control)
- when not used degrades (to discourage hoarding and keep the money (energy) moving)
- when used increases biological capital (as biological capital is what’s most important)
- is difficult to transport (to encourage local trading)
The only medium that I could think of that fulfills these four tenets is compost but even this would have problems. Money, of any kind, is part of what is called the barter economy. Barter economies can exist with no money or with compost as money or any type of money-some Polynesians used giant rocks as currency. All barter economies are fundamentally competitive. When two traders are attempting to strike a deal each one is personally invested in getting as much out of the situation as possible. Also the context, the natural world without which no humans would be around to make trade possible, is not considered. This leads to our current economic system of intense personal greed, extreme social stratification, and environmental devastation. Thankfully there are different economic systems available to us. If we wish to create an economic system based on cooperation we have to look no further than how we treat our children. No sane parent thinks of the economic return they will receive by raising a child, they raise a child out of love. When we relate to those around us and the natural world in a similar manner then we have what’s called the gift economy. People and the natural world cocreating itself. Again it’s what the Dalai Lama calls enlightened self-interest. When we see ourselves as part of a greater whole like a cell in a body than it doesn’t make any sense to maximize your wealth at the expense of the system. That would be akin to a cancer cell in your body utilizing as much energy as possible to grow as big as possible despite the fact that it is killing itself and the emergent phenomenon called you. In the gift economy you work hard to create real wealth, ecological wealth, which will feed you, your family, community, and land base indefinitely. You optimize your position in the system instead of maximize. Of course to live the gift economy would require a specific context, a context in which you and your community are cocreating a fecund ecosystem that you rely on for your material and nonmaterial needs. The cash/consumer economy has no place here, it is an economy of make believe and its time is up.
While money is still around we have to be wise about its use. Spending money on useless possessions to fulfill some supposed needs must stop. I’m reminded of the movie ‘Schindler’s List’, the protagonist-Schindler-essentially buys people to save them from sure death at the hands of the nazi’s. At the end of the movie as he is fleeing from the allied forces and saying goodbye to those that he saved he laments that he didn’t do more. This watch, he cries, could have bought five more people and this car, this suit, ‘oh what have I done’. No shit Schindler what did you do, you could have done so much more. We must use money as energy to create regenerative cultures and ecosystems.
Does anyone really think that the dominant system can just keep on going, that we can ‘stabilize’ the world population at 8 or 10 or 12 billion people? Really? What would the mechanism of stabilization be? Humans already, at 7 billion, use over 60% of primary productivity.30 There are only so many mountains to eat, oil deposits to deplete, and continents to defeat. Visualize the entire human population as one person consuming the entire planet. We eat in a pile of our own waste, soon to poison ourselves and starve ourselves to death. Imagine a bacterial population that doubles its size every day placed on a petri dish that contains 100 days of food for the bacteria. At what day will the bacteria have consumed half of its food? On day 99. Now imagine that some extra special smart bacteria realize there is a problem on day 96 and these smart industrious bacteria are able to double their food supply-how many days did they buy their community? One; one miserable day. The human population has skyrocketed in the last 100 years and just about everything it needs to survive is running out; oil, gas, coal, copper, silicone, uranium, soil, trees, fish, water…That technology will save us is a ubiquitous meme in our culture. I recently saw an issue of popular science the main articles were; ‘the robot that will save your life’, ‘a city that nature can’t destroy’ and ‘anti-aging secrets revealed’. The number of people and our lifestyle is so intense that no amount of technology can help. Oil is an incredible source of energy, 1 gallon of it can push a car between 10 and 50 miles. How much food would you and your friends have to eat to accomplish that? Oil drives our economy and as it runs out so too will our ‘civilization’. As was mentioned above oil is not the only thing that is running out. Some think nuclear will save us-uranium is running out, some think solar-silicone is running out, some think wind power to the rescue-each giant wind turbine takes thousands of pounds of copper to make the generator. How many watersheds and forests are we going to destroy to make wind turbines? According to Christopher Clugston in ‘Scarcity’ our culture vitally depends on 89 nonrenewable resources and as of 2008 63 of them (71%) have reached their peak. Nonrenewable resources comprise 95% of the raw material inputs to the U.S economy each year. America, as of 2008, uses about 6.5 billion toms of newly mined nonrenewable resources each year. This is an increase of 162,000% from the year 1800! On a finite planet infinite growth is absurd. We have reached the limits to growth and its all down hill from here.
Clugston believes that the 2008 economic crash was a watershed moment in the history of industrialized society. In a sense our culture has reached its peak. Clugston believes that as we slide down the bell curve there will be stabilizations and then crashes, stabilizations and crashes with evermore inter and intranational resource conflict. He believes that global industrialized culture will be completely disintegrated no later then 2050, likely by 2030. Internalize that! Now what do we think about fear as a motivating factor? I am personally uninterested in associating with people who are motivated to a lifestyle change by fear. I am attracted to people who’s motivation has to do with becoming fully human, a true beneficial organism in the Gaian body. That being said the preceding is reality.
On Bell Curves and Fatherhood
Bringing a child into the world is a big decision in any situation. Add to the equation an ecological understanding of Earths current state and the decision becomes that much more difficult. I know of a fellow who got a vasectomy at 18 to ensure that he never would be responsible for bringing a human into this world. With the combined weight of 7 billion human footprints crushing what’s left of Earths regenerative capabilities who could blame him? Its hard not to see humans as parasites as collectively we clearly are. But that does not mean parasitism is the only route open to us. Humans are entirely capable of living within an ecological paradigm enriching their surroundings. When we choose not to have kids because there are too many humans we are saying that our kids will be parasites. When we choose to have kids we choose hope that we can facilitate their being beneficial organisms.
There are other reasons people might choose not to have kids. We’ve grown quite a lot as a species over the last 10,000 years when we estimate there was 10,000 of us-a small U.S city today. There was still under a billion of us just a hundred years ago. Our population curve went skyward with the exploitation of fossil fuels. It seems to me that very few people are willing to admit that what goes up must come down. ‘Experts’ speak of ‘stabilizing’ the population at 9 billion or 15 billion. No one speaks of mechanisms of stabilization. The Earth cannot handle 7 billion of us consuming the way we do (who knows how many beneficial organisms the Earth system could support). How do we expect to sustain 9 or 15 billion? The upward curve of population growth paralleled the upward curve of fossil fuel extraction and the downward curve of population growth will parallel the downward curve of fossil fuel extraction. We have reached the peak of both. What goes up must come down. It seems the only folks to admit this reside within the pentagon, as their strategic planning shows explicitly. I suppose there are several reasons why this reality is not explicitly stated by anyone outside the pentagon. Its terrifying and folks tend to shoot the messenger. Obviously not everyone will agree with this assessment but its one that I live with everyday. For me the decision to have kids within this paradigm is one of hope. Hope that they will become beneficial organisms. Hope that they will continue stewarding the land in a regenerative manner. I believe in Humans and our children are Hope. I vision our Earth teeming with beneficial organisms, humans and non-humans alike, co-creating a diverse and fecund Earth system.
We as humans tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are a number of very well done critiques of the scientific epistemology31 and I feel they are relevant and important. Extreme devaluation of life in experiments, the cutting up of the universe into many discrete units to be deeply studied with hardly any cross fertilization, and the snobbishness of many scientists that the way of knowing of science is the only way of knowing are all relevant and important critiques. I’m reminded of a BBC film ‘Human Planet’, the scene was in the arctic talking about indigenous people and their relationship to northern lights, the narrator said something like, ‘people used to think that northern lights were their ancestors spirits dancing in the sky but now we know that its just charged particles shot out by the sun attracted to our planets poles that are being viewed.’ As if they are mutually exclusive!
Often times it helps to define what we are talking about to be able to think and communicate about it. I feel like science has been devalued and critiqued, wholly thrown out, because of basic human qualities, not qualities specific to science. As I see it science is the scientific method. The scientific method was developed by natural philosophers in the 17th century as an attempt to see the world as it is, instead of seeing what we expect to see. This is very important and can be compared to spiritual traditions that help us get passed our assumptions, prejudices and ‘dream of the times’ to glimpse nature directly. Clearly the scientific method is not the only method we should employ in our striving to understand the universe and our place in it but it is one method and potentially a very rewarding one.
The received account is varied on this subject but the vast majority of the variations show a common thread. Whether we are talking about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, the new age movement or Hinduism we see transcendence as a common thread. The soul is something that temporarily resides in the body but its true home is somewhere else from your body and somewhere else than this Earth. This body and the Earth are merely testing grounds and true experience and enlightenment occurs when we transcend both our physical body and our greater home the Earth. In Hinduism this life is a burden into which our past lives have placed us based on our behavior, we better be good in this life so we can get into a good slot in the next one, but the ultimate goal is to transcend this plane all together. The soul or atman is not made up of the same pattern and fabric as your body. None of this makes much sense from a systems perspective. From a systems perspective the ‘soul’ is immanent in the body. Your ego or soul or mind or body is not the matter or energy that it is composed of, rather you are a pattern of organization. Your whole body is continuously making itself anew. Your entire blood supply is new every 30 days, your liver every couple months, and your bones about every seven years. Your body emerges from this pattern of organization, so does your ego, mind, and soul. Your consciousness emerges from the pattern of organization and when that organization ceases to function your consciousness ceases with it. People are so busy thinking about where their soul will go, whether to heaven or hell or to some next life that they can’t simply die. Some people think that this perspective is depressing and limiting. I feel quite the opposite. Knowing that my consciousness emerges from the interactions within my body gives me a profound sense of strength, and a sense of belonging to this body, to this Earth, and to the universe.
If there is one thing for us to work on transcending it is our epistemology. We need to transcend the story that dominates our world today; the story32 that is killing the planet. The mistake I see so many making is that when they feel the need for transcendence they really go for it, now there not just trying to transcend all their baggage with the received belief system but also their own body and the Earth, we hear ‘grow beyond the confines of the Earth’. As if the Earth were limiting! You see that kind of language everywhere. All the power and depth of spiritual experience anyone could possibly hope for can be found right here, right now, right in our own bodies!
This spiritual separation or transcendence is part of a larger archetype in the dominant culture- namely the difference between transcendence and immanence. Transcendence or separation has been a fundamental component of the dominant cultures epistemology for the last three hundred years. We find it both in how we understand humans and nature (deep ecology vs. environmentalism), self and other,33 as well as mind/soul and body. We call this the Cartesian split after 17th century French philosopher Rena Descartes. The logical moral consequences that would follow such an understanding are vivisection (dissection of living patients), the creation of abstract resting places (heaven and hell), the belief in the ‘objective observer’ that has no affect on its environment, and the tendency to maximize one yield in any design (as opposed to optimizing) with its consequent ‘side effects’. An ecological epistemology understands that humans are made of the same pattern and fabric of nature and that mind is made of the same pattern and fabric of body. Mind emerges from the structure and relationships of the body just as life emerges from the structure and relationships of macromolecules. Biological phenomenon do not transcend physical and chemical phenomenon, they emerge from them. Spirituality and consciousness do not transcend biological phenomenon, they emerge from them. The entire universe is made from the same pattern and fabric. Thou art that.
Often times I hear damning critiques of religious traditions based on all too human qualities; greed, ego est. I feel like again we throw the baby out with the bathwater. Clearly the behavior of the world’s major religious traditions is intolerable but the people that gain a sense of hope, togetherness and meaning through these traditions (and in spite of them) is real and important. I have a deep respect and almost jealousy for the religious communities I have experienced. These communities are far more beautiful in my eyes then the modern existential human with no meaning or spiritual depth whose god is progress. I don’t wish to become incorporated into these religious communities because I can’t internalize their epistemology but I strive to create a similar depth of experience with a community saturated in an ecological epistemology.
A picture says a thousand words so for the sake of brevity let us look at some graphs. Taken together they are a great visual representation of the fubar (fucked up beyond all recognition) we are a part of.
The explosive growth we see in the human population is a result of humanity tapping into energy (fossil fuels) of a quality and quantity like never before. As mentioned earlier fossil fuel extraction has reached a peak and its all down hill from here. No alternative energy source comes close to fossil fuels. These graphs make it evident that the increase in human population coupled with an increase in fossil fuel use equals a world with a huge increase in atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide. Fossil fuel extraction and use, carbon dioxide concentration and population are all spiking. Infinite growth on a finite planet could be the definition of insanity. What goes up must come down. Our culture, Gaia and ourselves are at a critical point of instability, we will either undergo a bifurcation event and spawn a new way of knowing, lifestyle and culture that cocreates diverse and fecund ecosystems or we will die.
One beautiful thing about the first graph (atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide over the last 50 years) is that we can see Gaia breathing in it. Look at the oscillation within the upward trend i.e. the May maximum and the November minimum. In May carbon dioxide concentration is at a peak because all the forests, prairies and marshes of the northern hemisphere (where the vast majority of temperate land is) are dormant while the respirers are still active, as the plants start their great inhale in the spring atmospheric carbon dioxide starts to drop until dormancy around November.
As the dominant cultures’ march towards ‘progress’ eats into the twenty-first century, many people are questioning its base assumptions. An epistemology founded on separation and competition is being seen for what it is: shallow, arrogant, dangerous, and unique to the human species. It has created a culture that is destroying the Earths regenerative capabilities. This epistemology, or way of knowing, is only one of an infinite number of possibilities.
We have explored the nature of the American epistemology and how that story compares to an ecological epistemology. Now we will focus on embodying this ecological epistemology. All epistemologies and lifestyles have a creation story, a story that helps us understand how we got to where we are, a story that guides us in creating the future as well as helping us understand our place in the universe. An ecological epistemology is no different and I propose that we use as our creation story what I call the universe story.
The Universe Story
Evolution has always fascinated me. As a university student I took every course offered. One semester a creationist spoke at our university. I was intrigued. He was brilliant, the mechanisms he proposed were seamless. His assumptions were many and to me burdensome. Where I did not agree with him on his natural history I did agree with something he did not say but laid latent in his whole talk. The scientific community has done us a disservice by removing morality from its stories. In its quest for objective reality science has lost its humanity. I do not feel that we need to give ‘equal time’ to an anachronistic worldview, Christianity, to regain our humanity. There is nothing more moral than the story emerging out of the scientific community.
It took 15 billion years to create you. There is no fundamental difference between you and the rest of life just as there is no fundamental difference between biology and chemistry or chemistry and physics. The same universal creative force that created the first hydrogen atom or the first star created you. The universe is continually reaching out into novelty. Rather then the slow cold death of thermodynamics34 proposed by some physicists, we see the continued creation of elegant and brilliant new forms. You are one. So is Gaia. So then, you were born 15 billion years ago at a moment we call the big bang. All of the universes energy was involved in this moment. We will never know what happened before this moment. In the first millennia’s after the universe was born the temperature was so high that no hydrogen atoms existed, nor any quarks, just pure energy. We can look at hydrogen or any atom, quark, molecule etc. as a relatively stable pattern or relationship of energy. There are three forces in the universe that allowed for these energetic relationships to form. Gravity, electromagnetism, and nuclear. If it was not for these three forces the universe would die a cold thermodynamic death; indeed it would never have been alive, as all the energy would dissipate, evenly filling the void. Thanks to these three forces the affects of thermodynamics are nullified. Without these three forces you or I or Gaia would not, could not exist. We should name these forces and revere them. Their interaction has given rise to all of the vast creativity of the universe.
It didn’t take a western scientist/genius to ‘discover’ gravity, all apples fall. But perhaps it took one to remove the respect and awe of that force that we so mundanely call gravity. Actually not so much a force as it is a representation of the structure of space/time. Either way, gravity acts as the great gatherer of the universe consolidating energy. At every scale in the universe we see lumpy texture. Great clouds of galaxies separated by distances far greater then the distances between the galaxies within the clouds. And metaclouds of galaxies filled with these clouds of galaxies. And the galaxies, these aggregates of stars separated by far greater distances than the stars are within them. The same holds true for the small scale with atoms in molecules or protons and electrons within an atom. It’s as if after the big bang gravity brought together energy into great clouds. As the universe expanded and the distance between these clouds grew the internal dynamics of the clouds continued to partition and concentrate energy; clouds within clouds. If it were not for gravity no such concentration would take place. The void would be uniformly partitioned. Gravity acts instantaneously across the universe. As she pulls energy together she puts it into range of a far stronger force: the electromagnetic force. This force is what’s responsible for binding quarks into atoms and atoms into molecules. Depending on the circumstances it can be either attracting or repulsive. This force is very creative as it is responsible for all molecular and chemical evolution. Electromagnetism holds gravity at bay, not letting her crush atoms together. But when gravity concentrates enough energy she can overwhelm this magnetic force and bring energy into the much smaller yet exponentially more powerful domain of the nuclear force. As two hydrogen atoms are brought together by gravity the electromagnetic force attracts them together forming H2, but keeps each atom separate as their protons repel each other. With an increase in concentration of energy the pressure and temperature is so intense that the protons are forced close enough together to come into range of the nuclear force which forces them together forming a heavier element, helium, and in the process releasing energy in the form of heat and light. The places where this concentration of energy exists are called stars. It wasn’t until energy cooled down enough to concentrate into vast clouds dense enough to form stars that the heavier elements were born.
There are two types of stars, smaller and larger. The small ones far outnumber the big ones and their life spans are much longer. Our sun is a typical small star. These stars fuse hydrogen into helium, releasing heat and light, but aren’t big enough to fuse helium. The big stars called supernovas are needed to create all the other elements. Their lifespan is much shorter and many have lived and died. As the hydrogen fuel is used up, the helium which is heavier than hydrogen pools in the center of the star. As its concentration builds the electromagnetic force is overpowered by gravity bringing the protons of helium close enough together for the nuclear force to act and fuse them together forming carbon. The star takes on the form of an onion with different elements being formed in each level with the heaviest elements toward the center. This process continues until iron is formed in the center. At this point it takes more energy to overwhelm the electromagnetic force than is released by the fusion process. The center of the star loses its fuel and the whole star collapses upon itself and then explodes. This explosion is incredibly creative as it forms all other known elements. Many supernova explosions have been viewed by humans, the last one during the renaissance. It was reported to be as bright as the sun for two months. If a supernova exploded within 20 million light years of Gaia the force would be powerful enough to rip the atmosphere right off. Its not all so bad, our solar system is the remnants of a supernova explosion as all the heavy elements attest to. The real fun of chemical and biological evolution could play out only after the first supernova explosion and the creation of all the elements.
The same three forces that created stars and the elements have created all of chemical and biological evolution. Chemical evolution is not restricted to planets, it can happen in space. Space isn’t as empty as you may think. Vast clouds of water, ammonia, methane etc. exist in the universe; you just can’t see them because they don’t produce light. The real creativity happens in close proximity to an energy source e.g. a star. On Gaia we see the most elaborate (that we know of) creativity. Its not so far fetched that life would emerge from within the universe. I suppose it’s just as unlikely as hydrogen emerging from primordial energy or stars from hydrogen. Just as unlikely as water emerging from hydrogen and oxygen or methane from carbon and hydrogen. All it took was energy + time for the universes creative dance to create you. Life is a continuation of this immanent creativity
The universe is inherently and imminently creative. No transcendent creator god or human manages or manipulates energy insuring continued creative evolution. This is true in the cosmos as well as Gaia. Creativity just is.
From dissipative structures to living beings.
In the beginning there was only primordial energy. As the universe cooled the energy self organized into quarks and other subatomic particles. Those quarks self organized into hydrogen, and gravity drew in vast clouds of hydrogen together forming supernovas which formed all other known elements. Based on their own internal dynamics the elements self organized into molecules; water, ammonia and methane being some of the simplest. Based on their own internal dynamics these molecules and the elements self organized into macromolecules. It is important here to review the basic organizing principle of the universe; individual autonomy enmeshed in a functionally interdependent system. Depending on your perspective the individual autonomy could be the functionally interdependent system or vice versa. It only takes a change in perspective to see the tree as a functional component, ‘a cell’ in an individually autonomous ‘forest’, instead of an individually autonomous being. So we can see that it takes our perspective to determine what is an individual. Is your body the individual or your community or ecosystem or Gaia or your organs or your cells-molecules-atoms etc. Each level of organization is autonomous and these autonomous agents self organize based on their own internal dynamics creating an emergent being that is more than the sum of its parts. Quarks emerge from primordial energy, hydrogen emerges from quarks, water from hydrogen and oxygen, cells from macromolecules, organisms from cells, ecosystems from organisms, and Gaia from ecosystems. Cells could not emerge before the universes creative dance had created macromolecules and macromolecules could not have emerged before quarks, hydrogen, supernovas and all the other elements. What I want to look at here is how we got from macromolecules to living systems.
Energy in the universe is continually creative. This is especially true where we find gradients. Self organizing systems depend on gradients whether they be temperature, pressure or energy gradients. All of Gaia depends on the energy provided by the sun, Gaia can be seen as an eddy in the straight line dissipation of high quality solar energy showering Earth and low grade infrared energy dissipated back to space. Gaia incorporates that high quality solar energy into her body, cycling it countless times before dissipating it as low grade heat back to space. There are several very interesting examples of self organization in energy gradients forming what Ilya Prigogine calls ‘dissipative structures’, structures that are not quite alive, but aren’t dead either.35
The universe is constantly creating conditions in which energy self organizes into novel forms. One such example is what are called Bernard cells. From space the Saharan desert will look like a random assortment of sand dunes or will display a highly organized hexagonal form. No human imposes this structure on the landscape; rather these hexagonal forms are the cocreation of countless gaseous molecules and sand grains. What ultimately drives this self-organization is the sun and the temperature gradient it creates between the surface of the sand and the air above the sand. As the temperature gradient reaches a critical threshold the behavior of these countless gaseous molecules changes from random to highly organized. In order to dissipate the heat from the surface of the sand (where it is much hotter than the air) to the atmosphere, the air moves in coordinated ways. In the inside of the hexagonal cells the air is moving horizontally across the sand and towards the edge of the hexagonal cell. As the air reaches the edge of the cell it is uplifted into the air. This coordination of gaseous molecules radically alters the temperature gradient, dissipating it much faster than random movement. The movement of the air drives sand to the edges of the hexagonal cells forming sand dunes and the hexagonal pattern that can be seen from space. What is important here is that the creation of novel form is an immanent part of the universe and that these forms occur where there are gradients. What we see in the universe is the creation of novel forms at critical points of instability. This is true for dissipative structures like Bernard cells (as the temperature gradient reaches a critical threshold spontaneous form emerges), for larger systems like the climate (that has negative feedback processes that keep the system evolving around a mean until disturbances are great enough that the system amplifies the disturbance through positive feedback mechanisms, shifting the system to a novel form), and living systems that evolve quickly to new forms and thus new species through mechanisms we are just starting to understand.36
How life started has fascinated all but the most dull among us. Life is seen as something that is fundamentally different from other systems we see in the universe. I agree that life is fundamentally different but it is the same kind of difference that we find between hydrogen and water or quarks and hydrogen. Life is another order of complexity, a whole that is more than the sum of its parts; only life’s ‘parts’ are already wholes that are more than the sum of their parts. An ecosystem could not emerge before life and life could not emerge before macromolecules. As we have already seen the creation of the elements in supernovas allowed for a universal explosion of creativity. Vast clouds of reacting molecules inhabit supposedly ‘empty’ space. On our Earth with its constant influx of high quality solar energy and thus intense gradients the evolution and creativity of these macromolecules has created the emergent phenomenon we call life. There are many features that all life on the planet share, among the most important of these are that all cells have cell membranes. All cell membranes are basically soap bubbles: bipolar lipid membranes. Soap bubbles spontaneously form in water because half the molecule is water loving and half the molecule is water phobic. Countless soap bubbles must have formed on early Earth creating billions of unique experimental environments for life to find a start.
Up until very recently the Earth has been seen by science as a dead rock hurtling through space and life as a tenacious and temporary tenant being molded by powerful geologic and climatic influences to forms that are conducive with survival. Organisms are passive prisoners on spaceship Earth and don’t affect planetary processes. This received account is losing ground now to a new story emerging from a systems perspective.
In the 1970’s James Lovelock, an atmospheric chemist from Britain, was hired by NASA to help devise instruments to detect live on Mars. Lovelock determined that the best way to see if Mars was alive would be to test its atmospheric composition. This he did using satellites from Earths orbit and determined it to be in chemical equilibrium, a result expected from a dead planet (this didn’t go over too well with his NASA employers who were looking for ways to increase their budget). Needless to say, NASA went ahead with their Mars program spending billions of dollars and in the end concluding with Lovelock that Mars was and is dead. Lovelock realized then that the composition of the Earths atmosphere is far out of chemical equilibrium and that it is life that is continually creating the atmosphere. In a flash he saw all of the Earths forests and prairies, oceans and deserts, cocreating a living and breathing planet who he called Gaia after the Greek goddess of the Earth. His hypothesis was not warmly received by cold objective non-teleological science. This was in the 1970’s. Today the Gaia hypothesis; that life is cocreating biogeochemical processes, is an exciting and very active area of research.37
Life continually creates the conditions conducive to life. Without life there would be no water on Earth, possibly no plate tectonics, the composition of the atmosphere would be radically different-no oxygen, if there was water its salinity and calcium levels would be much higher, daytime temperatures would be much higher and nighttime lows much lower. In short the Earth would resemble Mars or Venus. How it is that life creates conditions conducive to life is a fascinating story that we are learning more and more about each day.
Scientists long wondered how sulfur, a vital element, made its way back to land after washing out into the oceans. Lovelock was sure that life played a roll in it and devised an instrument to detect sulfur over the oceans. What he found was fascinating. Small blue green algae live in surface waters the ocean round. They thrive in nutrient and oxygen dense cold water. As they grow and reproduce they use up their food, as their food runs out the algae start to emit dimethyl sulfide into the air. This gas rises up into the atmosphere some of which rains out onto land returning this vital element back to Gaias land based ecosystems. Modern evolutionary biologists scoffed at this apparently altruistic bacterial behavior, that is, until they heard the rest of the story. As the dimethyl sulfide rises into the air it acts as a nucleation point for the flocculation of clouds. As these huge marine stratus clouds form they rise high up into the atmosphere pulling in air from their periphery, stirring the waters, adding nutrients and oxygen to the water alleviating the plight of our hero algae. Also some algae are alighted into the clouds where they are rained out, hopefully to greener pastures. So it seems that our algae are not entirely altruistic, their emission of dimethyl sulfide is a survival mechanism that allows for the importation of nutrients and oxygen and exportation of some of the algae.
These algae play a critical role to the overall health of Gaia, not just by closing the sulfur cycle but also by the production of huge marine stratus clouds. These clouds reflect sunlight cooling the planet significantly. This is especially important now with our great fossil fuel party importing a burdensome load of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, as you see our star is a typical star that undergoes a pretty well understood evolution. What is important from a geophysiological38 perspective is that the amount of heat/energy that the Earth is receiving from the sun is increasing. The sun is 25% hotter then when life started 3.9 billion years ago. Despite this, the Earths geophysiological system has maintained surface temperatures within bounds suitable to life. The ice ages can be seen as a planetary cooling mechanism and the interglaciers as a failure of that mechanism. Most people look at ice ages as a low productivity portion of the Earths history. I believe that the glacial periods would be just the opposite. Cold nutrient/oxygen rich oceans would provide the ideal conditions for ocean life and the amount of land lost to glaciers would be gained by lower ocean levels-mainly between SE Asia and Australia. Long before the sun expands to encompass the Earth (about 5 billion years) we will be receiving too much heat to maintain surface temperature conducive to life as it has existed on this planet. In fact in 100 million years the sun will be so hot that a 0% carbon dioxide atmosphere will be necessary to keep thermal homeostasis. Obviously this is not possible with life as it exists now. This means that if Gaia were to live to 100 years she would be 97 and a half years old now. Gaia is a tough old girl but how she will react to our great fossil fuel party is hard to know. You see by our adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere we are exasperating an already overwhelming problem of excess heat.
Algae are not the only creatures that seed clouds. Trees emit dimethylsulfide and other nucleating agents for cloud formation. Trees are incredibly important for Gaian cocreation and without them life as we know it would not exist. Forests create weather. It is estimated that over 50% of the rain that falls on the Amazon basin is created by the forest itself; take away the trees and the conditions that allowed for the forest disappears and with it the forest. Most of the deserts on the planet are human created. Its no wonder that the birthplace of our taker civilization, “the fertile crescent”, modern day Iraq, Iran as well as Greece, and Turkey, are now desert. The forests were felled and the conditions that allowed for their existence disappeared with them. Trees not only create rain but the rain that does fall on them is held in the landscape much longer because of them. When rain hits bare soil its physical force dissolves soil and moves it, washing it to rivers. When rain falls on a forest the trees physically stop the rain allowing a much less violent meeting of water and Earth. The forest floor is far from bare soil with its countless roots and mycellial filaments, in a thick forest duff. This forest soil acts like a sponge, absorbing water and slowly metering it out. This is the reason that rivers run the year round. Trees also produce OH, otherwise known as hydroxyl. OH is extremely volatile and reacts with several trace gases most notably methane. Methane is produced by ruminant animals, actually by their symbiotic partner anaerobic gut bacteria (and is belched not farted), other anaerobic bacteria, and by humans and their technology. Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas with a very short lifespan in the atmosphere thanks to OH, which reduces it to carbon dioxide and water vapor. Methane production is rising and OH production is falling (thanks to massive deforestation) so not only is more methane being produced but also methane stays in the atmosphere longer because there is less OH to reduce it. The great tropical rain forests are partially responsible for ocean currents and global wind patterns. Much more energy impacts the tropical zones39 then the temperate zones, in fact if it were not for global circulation patterns (currents and jet streams) the arctic would reach absolute zero (-278 degrees f, the point at which everything is frozen) in the winter months. Trees see to it that about 50% of the precipitation that falls on them is transpired back to the atmosphere. When water turns to vapor on a leafs surface or through their stomata a tremendous amount of energy is consumed. Another way to look at it is that a lot of the heat/energy of the sun is stored in the vapor. If it was not for this affect the surface of the leaf would vastly overheat. One of transpirations function is that of cooling, not only of the plant itself but of the entire forest. Immediately upon forming the water vapor rises. When the vapor reaches a cooler elevation it condenses into clouds (cooling the planet with its reflectiveness) and releases all of that stored energy heating the upper atmosphere. This heating of the upper atmosphere creates temperature gradients that to a large extent drive the global circulation patterns (jet streams). Without tropical forests the Earth could become a much more still place.
Trees are chemists and are largely responsible for ecosystem health through the millions of chemicals they synthesize. Insects, animals including humans, bacteria, and fungi all depend on plant medicine. For example saguaro cacti have developed a relationship with a specific Drosophilae fly. The cacti create and release a steroidal compound called schoottenol that attracts the flies for pollination. The fly uses the medicine to make their molting hormone without which they cannot grow to maturity and reproduce. The cacti also produce another chemical that keeps away all other Drosophilae. According to Stephen Harrod Buhner, “Regulatory interdependencies such as this are the norm throughout the planet’s ecosystems. Without these plant chemistries-millions of years in the making-released at specific times, in specific combinations and amounts, no ecosystem could function or remain healthy.” 40 Forests do so much, they even produce complex chemicals that make people feel good!41 We all should spend more time in them and work hard to cocreate them.
The story of Gaias carbon cycle is an interesting one and contains all of Gaias players: life, rocks, atmosphere and ocean, as well as physical and chemical processes. Carbon in the atmosphere whether in the form of carbon dioxide or methane, act as an insulative blanket warming the planet. The more of it in the atmosphere the warmer Gaia will be. As rain falls on rock it dissolves carbon dioxide into carbonic acid and hydrogen. Hydrogen, being the smallest elemental being makes its way into the crystalline structure of the rock. Most rocks are calcium silicate rocks that are made deep in the interior of the Earth and well up in volcanoes cooling into basalt. As the positively charged hydrogen makes its way into the rock lattice it surrounds the bigger negatively charged calcium and silicone elemental beings neutralizing their charges. The solid rock liquefies and the free calcium atoms bind to the carbonic acid forming calcium bicarbonate, which dissolves in water making its way to rivers and eventually the ocean. For each atom of calcium weathered from the rocks two atoms of carbon are removed from the atmosphere. Once in the ocean the calcium bicarbonate is taken up by several ocean creatures; clams, mollusks and other shellfish but primarily by coccolithophores, microscopic phytoplankton that use the calcium bicarbonate to form protective shells around them. Countless hordes of plankton have taken up this calcium bicarbonate for millions of years. As the plankton die they fall to the bottom of the ocean raining the calcium bicarbonate to the ocean floor forming chalk or limestone thus taking carbon out of the atmosphere for millions of years. It is theorized by Gaian ecologist that the weight of the chalk and limestone is so great that it initiates the movement of the plates and thus plate tectonics. Either way the limestone and chalk is subducted into the mantle of the Earth and melted, mixed with silicon and other elements to flow once more from volcanoes cooling to basalt. Life plays an important part in the precipitation of the calcium bicarbonate as well as the rock weathering. Compared to bare rock, rock covered with life is weathered up to 100x more. Roots physically break rock open exposing thousands of times more surface area to air and water then had previously existed. Fungi and bacteria secrete rock-eating chemicals again exposing tremendously more surface area for weathering.
Early in Gaias’ life the sun was so cool that an atmosphere composed of a higher concentration of methane and carbon dioxide was necessary to keep the planet warm enough for life. At this point life was only in the oceans and the rocks on land weathered only by physical means: water and wind erosion. As Gaia aged and the sun warmed life made its way onto land.42 As we just saw life on land enhances the weathering of rock up to 100x. This is important because carbon plays an important role in temperature regulation. The more of it buried in the Earth the cooler the planet will be. Interestingly a great glacial epoch engulfed the Earth shortly after life made its way onto the land. As life increased the burial of carbon it reduced its concentration in the atmosphere and cooled the planet significantly. It took millions of years for enough carbon to accumulate in the atmosphere for the glacial epoch to break. It was not just the increased rock weathering that led to increased burial of carbon and thus a glacial epoch. Between 300 and 280 million years ago the tripartite relationship of fungi, plants and nitrogen fixing bacteria made their way onto land and evolved from inch midgets to 100 foot giants. To do this plants invented lignin, a carbon lattice that allowed for the structural strength to support that 100 feet. Lignin is a complex carbon molecule that can still to this day only be broken down by fungi. It took fungi 100 million years to invent the enzymes necessary to break down lignin! In that time period a vast amount of carbon was buried forming the majority of fossil fuels that we use today.
Everywhere in the ocean the relationship between phosphorus and nitrogen is the same: 7 parts nitrogen to one part phosphorus. The relationship between phosphorus and nitrogen in the cells of most life is also 7/1. This is remarkable considering all the inflows and outflows of these two elements from the ocean. Just like oxygen and temperature this Gaian homeostasis is life driven. Phosphorus is a limiting nutrient on land and in the sea. It is essential to life specifically in the energy storage molecule ATP. A simple feedback mechanism is at play here. Wherever there is life with a nitrogen to phosphorus ratio that is below 7 (nitrogen deprivation) nitrogen fixing bacteria thrive. These bacteria increase the amount of nitrogen in the system. As the ratio of nitrogen rises the nitrogen fixing bacteria loose their competitive advantage and start to die off halting the build up of nitrogen. This is because the fixing of nitrogen takes a lot of energy so when it’s plentiful they are burdened by this task. This is a good example of feedback mechanisms controlling Gaian physiology; no altruism or teleology is displayed here just tight structural coupling and phylogenetic drift ensuring system homeostasis.
Take a look again at the ice age graph above that shows the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide over the last 450,000 years. Notice the fairly regular oscillations of the climate system between 180ppm and 290ppm. These oscillations are triggered by slight variation in the amount of solar energy Gaia receives thanks to variations in the eccentricity of her orbit. The energy difference is slight but enough to trigger the climate system to oscillate in and out of ice ages. I want to give you an idea of the type of positive feedbacks operating here. Imagine an interglacial period with vast temperate and tropical forests. There is a tremendous amount of diversity and fecundity in the Gaian system now, forests are pulverizing rock to access minerals and at the same time pulling carbon out of the air both in the form of soil humus and calcium carbonate which will make its way to the oceans were it will be used as protective armor and then sink to the ocean sediments buried for millions of years. Life is everywhere on land drawing down carbon. As carbon in the atmosphere gets lower and lower the temperature starts to fall ushering in a new ice age. As snow and ice accumulate in the upper latitudes they reflect more sunlight then the forests they replace further cooling the atmosphere. Also as CO2 reaches its lower limits plants grow much more slowly reducing their rate of carbon sequestration.43 As temperatures drop less water is evaporated from the oceans. This means that less rain falls on the continents further reducing plant growth. As less carbon is weathered from rocks and entombed in calcium carbonate the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises as Vulcan consistently supplies it via volcanoes. With the increase in carbon dioxide, decrease in precipitation (thus less glacier building) and slight orbital forcing (more solar energy) Gaia emerges from an ice age.
Our physiology is intimately tied to Gaias physiology. When we breath we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, when a plant breaths it inhales carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen. Take away plants and the oxygen in the atmosphere would quickly be used up, take away the respirerers (animals, some bacteria and fungi) and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would quickly get used up. The photosynthesizers and respirerers are really two sides to the same coin. Our physiologies are intimately tied to Gaias in other ways as well. Why do we urinate? The simple answer is to excrete waste, primarily nitrogen, in the form of ammonia. From a selfish reductionist paradigm the excretion of nitrogen in a liquid form is a burden on the individual. Nitrogen’s most stable chemical form is a gas N2. There is no physiological reason why animals don’t excrete nitrogen in a gaseous form. The vast majority of nitrogen in Gaia is as a gas, as it makes up 78% of the atmosphere. Nitrogen as N2 is very stable and inert, it is very difficult for life to cycle nitrogen from this source, plants can’t do it at all, it’s only the nitrogen fixing bacteria that can do it. If all animals excreted nitrogen as a gas Gaia would soon run out of this important element and die. Thankfully our physiologies are vitally tied to Gaias’ and animals excrete nitrogen in a very plant friendly form: liquid ammonia. Every time I urinate I think; “where is the best place for this Gaian gift?” And just as trees help cool their own surface and the surface of the planet through transpiration our sweet links our bodies to the top of the troposphere where its latent heat helps drive jet streams. Geophysiology is fascinating and I encourage people to read the resources listed in the footnotes.
Life creates conditions conducive to life. Gaia is an emergent phenomenon engaging both the geosphere, sun and the biosphere. We do not walk on the Earth, we walk in Gaia, we are a part of her as our cells are a part of us. Her organs are the great forests, marshes, grasslands, coral reefs and other ecosystems of the world. As we destroy her organs we destroy ourselves.
Certain biologically human factors influence our perspective. Among these are our size, sensory capabilities, and lifespan. To us 20 years is a long time. Indeed many of us have a hard time visualizing beyond the day to day let alone a human lifetime. Even to contemplate modest geologic time is mind numbing. We believe the Universe is about 15 billion years old, the solar system and Earth about 4.6 billion and life about 3.9 billion. It is hard to comprehend billions so here is some context. Counting to one thousand would take you about 15 minutes, to one million a couple weeks, and to a billion 50 years. If the history of life were condensed into 365 days, humans would enter the scene on December 31 at 9:30pm, civilization on December 31 at 11:50pm, and one long (100years) human lifetime on December 31 at 11:59 and 40 seconds. In geologic time 10,000 years is a blink of an eye. Very few of us have as part of our paradigm a deep understanding of geologic time. Our perceptions and thoughts are not influenced by it. We see processes (we call them things) that are outside our timeframe, most processes, as unchanging. This is the level of the sea; this is the rivers course we say, unable to see the river as a process, as a dance across the landscape continually creating its course anew. We take snapshots of landscapes, ecosystems and peoples and say this is how it is now, how it always has been, and how it forever will be. Even in this day of massive geophysiological change we have good-hearted people fighting and working in restoration biology, trying to restore land back to some anthropogenic picture of how it was. When we start thinking in geologic time we can start to see an ecosystem, a landform, a species as an evolving process.
The universe is about 15 billion years old, the Earth 4.6 billion. The oldest rocks known are 3.9 billion years old and in them we see traces of life. Life is as old as it possibly could be, if it is older we will never know because there would be no record of it. So then Gaia is a little older then 25% the age of the universe! Gaia has been knocked back several times in those 3.9 billion years but never killed. There is a constant lineage from those first life forms to us. The same biochemistry that existed in the first cells exists in all of today’s organisms. Life is amazingly similar. All of life is made up of a cell or cells in a water based fluid with a bipolar lipid membrane, all of life uses phosphorus in the currency of molecular energy, all of life has ribosomes, catalyzes reactions using enzymes and contain a genome composed of DNA. All of life is built by primarily six elements in a remarkably constant proportion across the entire diversity of life, these are: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur.44 These are lighter elements that form the strongest bonds and are the most numerous on Gaia and the universe. All photosynthesizers use the same molecule to catch sunlight, chlorophyll, and the same enzyme to catalyze the reaction that turns carbon dioxide and water into sugar, rubisco45. The same molecule that makes your blood red, hemoglobin, is made by plants to bind to oxygen in root nodules that house nitrogen fixing bacteria (because the bacteria need anoxic conditions to live and the hemoglobin mops up any free oxygen keeping it from killing the bacteria). There is little biochemical difference between you and any other Gaian organism. We are all brothers and sisters. Imagine a world in which organisms biochemistry varied significantly; some organisms were carbon based, some silicone based, some organisms were water based and some ammonia based. You sure would have to be careful about what you ate!
All life is very similar and Gaia has continually been alive for at least 3.9 billion years but the atmospheric composition has had several different set points. In the beginning the sun was much weaker than today. An atmosphere with much more carbon dioxide and methane was needed to maintain surface temperatures that were conducive to life. Early Gaia was full of methane producing bacteria cocreating a warm insulative blanket. These bacteria also produced oxygen as a waste gas but this oxygen quickly reacted with reducing elements (iron, sulfur, methane) and did not accumulate in the atmosphere. But about 2 billion years age (over half the age of Gaia) oxygen started to be produced above the rate of its reduction.46 As the iron, sulfur, and methane were used up, oxygen accumulated and started to become a problem for early life as they quickly died in its presence (these early bacteria that were the dominate cocreators of Gaia for over half of her life still exist today in any place oxygen isn’t: our guts, subsoil, bogs etc.) The accumulation of free oxygen in the atmosphere initiated a great die off of the vast majority of Gaias first cocreators. But like a powerful phoenix Gaia rose up into a more diverse ecology with higher potential energy. As a true answer to the problem is the solution, life was able to turn oxygen the harbinger of death into oxygen the fire of life. Oxygen allowed for a steeper energy gradient for life to tap. All respiration (the burning of food in organisms) is made possible by oxygen. Metabolism is literally the fire of life, the fire that is inside of us and makes us. This greater energy gradient that oxygen produced allowed for Gaias second (the beginning of life being the first) creative explosion. This is where we get multicellular life and eukaryotic cells (oxygen probably initiated the production of the nucleus, protecting the DNA from its ill affects). Oxygen rose in the atmosphere in two main pulses, one about 2 billion years ago leading to eukaryotic cells and multicellulers and the second about 580 million years ago leading to the formation of the ozone layer and the Cambrian explosion. The Cambrian explosion is the amazing diversification of bodyplans that happened in the Cambrian period 580 million years ago thanks to the increased potential energy provided by an increase in oxygen concentration. Increased oxygen concentration allowed for a richer diversity of life and a more fecund Gaian system. This increased fecundity allowed for more carbon to be buried thanks to life enhanced rock weathering and sequestration of carbon in calcium carbonate sediments on the ocean floor. The cooling and oxygen concentration seem necessary for the diversification we see in the Cambrian explosion. All life forms since the Cambrian explosion are variations on the themes laid down after Gaia cooled and oxygen rose 580 million years ago.
About 300 million years ago rooted land plants enter the scene thanks to a relationship with mycorrhizal fungi and nitrogen fixing bacteria. In about twenty million years land plants evolve to 100 foot trees from inch tall mosses. To do this they invented lignin a carbon based lattice that allowed for the structural support necessary for height. Lignin is very hard to break down and only fungi can do the trick but it took them about 100 million years to develop the enzymes necessary. In that 100 million years a tremendous amount of carbon was sequestered. This period is called the carboniferous period and is the source of most of the fossil fuels that are burned today. Rooted land plants greatly increased the rate of rock weathering, sequestering large amounts of carbon in oceanic calcium carbonate deposits. These two sinks of carbon led to a massive global cooling and ice age as well as a significant increase in oxygen concentration, several percentage points above today’s level of 21%. This is because the more carbon sequestered the more free oxygen is available. This increased oxygen concentration created an even higher energy gradient and produced an increase in scale of body plans not seen before or since, for example we find rock prints of dragonflies with two foot wingspans!
Just as oxygen is the ingredient that allows for so much complexity in life it is the ingredient that ultimately kills that complexity in old age. As we have seen oxygen is the energetic and charismatic element seducing any molecules that come its way. Oxygen is constantly destroying molecular structure. Life has come up with several ways to safeguard itself from these ‘free radicals’ but they still take their toll.
Oxygen is not the only harbinger of life’s creative diversification and complexification. Life not only comes together in larger order systems like Gaia and ecosystems producing emergent domains through cooperation, but she also cooperates on smaller scales were we could say that 1+1+1=1. Symbiosis, the merging of two or more distinct organisms into one organism is ubiquitous on this planet.47 It becomes difficult to discern distinct individuals when we start to understand symbiosis. For example the mitochondria, an organelle in all respirer’s cells (non photosynthetic beings that use oxygen to burn food; all animals, fungi, some bacteria) has its own DNA and used to live on its own before merging with early cells helping cocreate eukariotic cells. This is true as well of chlorophyll and plant cells. All multicellular organisms are composed of once independent microbes and ‘independent’ microbes are everywhere. Have you ever thought about how a tree that can live 1000+ years with one genome is able to defend itself from microbes that can have several generations an hour? The evolutionary arms race seems quite one sided. The answer is because the tree is not just a tree but a community of species interacting together bringing about the emergent phenomenon that we can see as a tree. The tree has bacteria living all over its surface, between its cells, everywhere. These bacteria have the same generation rate as the microbes that might be pathonogenic to the tree. What is true for the tree is true for all organisms, you and me as well. That is why the persistent and ubiquitous use of antibiotics is causing so many problems, we are killing off a large part of the emergent phenomenon we call you. The examples of symbiotic partners could go on and on all the way up to the emergent phenomenon Gaia. These are fascinating stories that have been detailed in Lynn Margulis’s books and videos.
This then is the new creationism; everything in the universe was born 15 billion years ago in an instant we call the big bang. The inherent creativity of the universe created the first stable self organizing structures we call quarks, these symbiotically combined self organizing into hydrogen, hydrogen into stars and thus all the other elements. With all the elements another whole domain of creativity was opened up to the universe, molecular evolution. Within close proximity to an energy gradient (a star) molecular evolution allowed for another whole domain of creativity; that of biology. Within biology we see that all life shares the same ancestor, chemistry, and structure, that evolution and ecology are driven by cooperation and symbiosis forming new self organized domains we call eukaryotes, multicellular organisms, culture, ecosystems and Gaia. Gaia is the most complex emergent domain in the universe, as she does not interact with other ‘Gaia’s’ cocreating a higher nested system or emergent domain. As it first took the self-organization of energy into quarks before we could get hydrogen so it took all the inner order emergent domains of the universe before we could get Gaia. Gaia then is the pinnacle of universal creativity and should be treated with reverence.
We have seen that together we bring forth a world, that this world is just one of an infinite number of possible worlds. We have looked at the story we have been trained in, the American story, and seen just how poisonous it is. We have contrasted that story with an ecological story to see just how different life can be. In part 3 we gained an awareness of our embeddedness in the universe, our belonging to the universe. We saw how we are a part of Gaia as our cells are a part of us. In part 4 I want to attempt to help us embody this ecological perspective in our conscious design of lifeways. To that end we will now look at Permaculture.
What is Permaculture48
Bill Mollison, a Tasmanian and David Holmgren, an Australian, coined permaculture in 1978 with the publication of Permaculture 1. This is how Bill Mollison defines permaculture in his 1988 designers manual; “Permaculture (permanent culture) is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way. Without permanent agriculture there is no possibility of a stable social order. Permaculture design is a system of assembling conceptual, material, and strategic components in a pattern which functions to benefit life in all its forms. The philosophy behind permaculture is one of working with, rather than against, nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action; of looking at systems in all their functions, rather than asking only one yield of them; and of allowing systems to demonstrate their own evolutions.”49 In permaculture we are trying to create a regenerative human culture that is cocreating diverse and fecund ecosystems. This is far removed from other modern ‘green’ movements like integrated pest management, organic agriculture, and green consumerism.
Permaculture is cultural design based in systems thinking. Permaculture is information and imagination intensive. Permaculture is a process, there is no end, and there is no ‘permaculture’ chicken as there are ‘organic’ chickens. Permaculture is relevant at every scale from kitchen design to settlement design; it can be applied to all continents and climate types as well as all cultures from indigenous to industrial. The principles and ethics of permaculture flow naturally and inevitably from an ecological/systems based epistemology that we have been talking about. A lot of permaculture is like duh, know matter how poorly we think of ourselves as designers we can do no worse then the design examples we see around us. Ten day to three week permaculture design courses are taught globally, tens of thousands of students have been trained, we are everywhere.
Permaculture is unique as a design system because it is based on a set of ethics. These ethics seem simple enough and most caring people when presented with these ethics agree with them and think to themselves that they embody them. Unfortunately the vast majority of humans do not embody these ethics in their lifeways. It is up to each one of us to look closely at his/her lifeway and determine where they can make changes so that they embody these ethics. You can not do permaculture part time, you can do cool things but not permaculture, permaculture is a lifeway.
Care of the Earth
This is the only ethic necessary as all other ethics follow from this ethic. Let’s remember that permaculture is information and imagination intensive and that the path to hell is paved with good intentions i.e. the people who love hummingbirds the most kill the most (rancid corn syrup ferments in their guts bursting them). How do we care for the Earth? I believe that every one of our acts has to fit into the pattern and fabric of ecological systems. We shall not produce waste, waste is pollution and is not caring for the Earth. If we are ethical beings and not hypocritical then we must create a lifestyle and a culture that fits this ethic.
Care of People
Any system or design that does not include people will be hurt by people and hurt people. Properly designed human lifeways are beneficial components of ecosystems.
Permaculture principles help provide us with a way of thinking that enables the establishment of highly productive systems. All principles have been derived from observation of natural systems. All principles are non-dogmatic; every situation is unique. Principles (along with ethics and design methodology) generally make up the core of an Introduction to Permaculture course. No two instructors will organize information into the same principles and the number of principles varies. The following list of principles is how I understand the information.
1: Observe and Interact
In the dominant culture we see ourselves as separate from nature and talk about resources and wilderness. We call ecologically enlightened thinking environmentalism. Wilderness is defined as a place where humans and their acts don’t dominate. We are told to leave only footsteps and take only photographs. The majority of human action would not be classified as ‘natural’, in fact the more natural something is the more it is separate from humans. By classifying some places as ‘wilderness’ we allow ourselves to pollute and spoil other places. We see ourselves as something of another kind, something inherently flawed, yet better than nature. Bees and butterflies, oaks and pines, know how to make beauty in nature but humans don’t. In permaculture we understand that humans and nature are one and the same, made of the same pattern and fabric. Instead of environmentalism we have Deep Ecology and we talk of communities. Humans are seen as beneficial organisms and functional components of an ecosystems organization.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Knowledge and observation are relevant to the epistemology of the observer. The saying, ‘the path to hell is paved with good intentions’ reminds us that we must act within an epistemology that matches the way of knowing of Gaia if our actions are going to match our ethics.
Objectivism is impossible, we are immanently enmeshed in Gaia and all our actions cocreate her. We must be explicit about our assumptions and values.
2: Work With Nature
Nature has been around for a while. She is as old as she possibly could be, as the oldest known rocks, dating back to 3.9 billion years, show signs of life. This is about 25% the age of the universe! Clearly what she’s doing is working. We have no farther to look for guidance then nature herself.
Just like in the ethics, just about everyone thinks that they live their life in accord with this principle but in my observations precious few do. Even green beans (folks who talk a good game), who practice organic agriculture, will spray poisons on their crops instead of creating conditions and having patience for pest predators. Sheet mulching is a good example of working with nature. Most folks who want to start a garden till to do so. By tilling they are killing whatever was there and temporally loosing and aerating the soil. They are also vaporizing carbon and nitrogen and killing most soil life. We can sheet mulch if we want to start a garden and work with nature. In a sheet mulch we are making a large compost pile with a smothering layer (usually cardboard or newspaper) that will quickly degrade adding organic matter to the soil and kill the existing plant community. Sheet mulching aerates the soil as well but this time in a way that uses biology as an ally by creating conditions conducive to earthworms and other soil aerators. Thus biology incorporates organic matter and oxygen into the soil creating ideal conditions for your garden without vaporizing carbon and nitrogen, opening the soil up to erosion and killing most soil critters. The best time to do a sheet mulch is when the grass, or whatever plant community you are looking at smothering, is growing real fast. The perfect time is in the early spring with the first flush of growth, if you smother while the plants are growing strong they will continue to grow under the smothering layer producing ammonia and asphyxiating themselves.
3: Everything Gardens or Everything has an effect on its environment
This is an extension of Principle #2. When we observe how an element (plant, animal, rock etc.) changes ecosystems, how they behave, we may find useful allies is our permaculture. It is up to us to decide whether to control, amplify, manage or tolerate effects of any one element.
When we talked to people about our desire for an aquaculture system we heard a lot of concern about increasing mosquito numbers. My response was that our mosquito population would plummet because we were creating conditions for the critters that eat mosquitoes. And sure enough our mosquito population quickly plummeted thanks to many species of dragonflies, frogs, toads, fish, bats…..Another example involves squirrels and nuts. Squirrels horde nuts giving many nut growers serious consternation. Placing 3-6” diameter pipes in the nuttery gives the squirrels a good place to store their nuts thus turning our ‘problem’ into a solution.
Bees pollinate. Birds fertilize, till, and predate pests. Snakes eat mice. Frogs eat aphids and slugs…….
4: Use Biological/Renewable Resources
Trucks start dying the instant they’re made, their use and creation poisons you and they cannot make more trucks. Trucks turn energy into poison. Horses turn energy into soil and heat, they make more horses and they get better with age. A permaculture does not depend on nonrenewable resources.
5: Catch and Store Energy
Ultimately all of our energy comes from the sun. We need to catch and store that energy in our permaculture. Swales (a ditch on contour) catch and store water and soil. Passive solar design catches and stores sunlight. Nitrogen fixing plants, dynamic accumulators, and animal attractors (blackberry) catch and store nutrients. Trees catch water and atmospheric dust. Information can be seen as stored energy.
6: Cycle Energy/Nutrients
After we catch and store energy we must cycle it on our site as many times as possible. The energy (water, air, soil, nutrients, animals, plants, humans) that leaves our site should be of a higher quality then the energy that entered the site. As an example polluted biologically dead water entering our site should be cleaned and biologically enriched before it leaves our site (and of course is should provide several vital functions before it leaves).
A cycle is an eddy in the straight line progression to entropy. There is no linear system in nature. There is no such thing as waste in a permaculture. Waste is defined as an output of a system that is not a productive input of another system. Waste is a failure in design.
7: Next Highest Use
After we catch and store energy we must cycle it always considering that energies next highest use. If we harvest a deer off our permaculture we could cycle that energy by burying that deer next to a tree fertilizing it. Or we could eat the deer, poop, and fertilize the tree with our humanure. Or we could eat the deer, poo, feed the poo to worms, make worm-casting tea to fertilize the fruit tree use the worms to catch fish, eat, poo, ……..In order to efficiently cycle energy we need lots of people working together intimately.
8: The Problem is the Solution
With this principle we are not trying to find systemic solutions to problems but rather we are asking if looking at the ‘problem’ from a different perspective will turn the ‘problem’ into a solution. What is required is an open inquiring attitude.
If our problem is dense clay soil then our solution could be aquaculture and earthen buildings.50
9: Make Least Change for Greatest Affect
This principle encourages us to use small and slow solutions. Since everything is connected often times our actions have unintended consequences. Using the smallest and slowest solutions helps us identify unnoticed connections and allows us to avoid creating large problems. Ex. When digging a pond choose a site where the least amount of earth moved gives most amount of water stored.
10: Obtain a Yield
We need to design our systems for yields at all scales; immediate, middle, and late. We can not work on an empty stomach. When planting a food forest plant chestnuts and stonepines that will yield for hundreds of years as well as strawberries and lettuce that will yield immediately. This principle also encourages us to harvest the abundant energy the site already has whether it’s wild apples or grass of an old field.
11: Use and Value Diversity
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Diversity of ecotypes, species, genetics within species and relationships are all important. Self-reliance demands diversity. If your chestnuts fail maybe the oaks or beech have a bumper crop or the potatoes or lotus root or corn or wapato. Some how you will obtain your starch yield! Diversity of relationships is just as important as diversity of elements. Unconnected elements equal chaos and poison, elements with many connections equal resilience. Relating your ducks to a perennial polyculture, annual gardens, ponds and nursery will create a much more productive and resilient system (as well as much happier ducks) then relating them simply to a pen.
12: Every Important Function Supported by Many Elements
This principle reminds us the importance of redundancy. A function is water or food or shelter or love or fertility. So the function water can be supported by the elements; pond, well, spring, roof catchment, gray water use, no black water, swales, mulch, soil building, right plants for right place.
13: Each Element Performs Many Functions
We need to ask for more than one yield out of any element. We are not trying to force functions out of an element. We wouldn’t want to ask our milk cow in peak production to do heavy work. We are simply placing elements in appropriate relationships to allow their innate behavior to be functional in our permaculture.
Ex. Yields we could expect out of a chicken; meat, eggs, feathers, heat, CH4, CO2, manure, scratching, pest control, tilling, more chickens. Yields we could expect out of a pond; food, fire control, beneficial organism habitat, mirror, transportation, recreation, ice, microclimate, irrigation.
14: Relative Location
Each elements performing many functions depends on their relative location both in space and time. To do this we need to understand the niche that each element needs and creates.
For a plant that would mean knowing the plants architecture; form (tree, bush etc), habit (woody, vining) its soil, light and water requirements, both what it tolerates and what it thrives on. Succesional community it is found in, where it is native, plant/animal/microbial/fungal associations, both pests and allies. We need to know what the plant offers and what it needs. For animals we need to know what they eat, when they eat, what kind of shelter they use over the course of the day, year, and lifetime. Associations they have ect. The information one could accumulate for each element and their relationships seems endless! But don’t get caught in the paralysis of analysis. We must act! Only then can we truly learn (and accomplish something).
15: Stacking in Time and Space
The more concentrated our permaculture the less land we need. We can stack vertically in space; a ground cover of ramps, oregon grape, wintergreen and sorrel, a canopy of chestnuts and walnuts with intermediate layers of hazelnut and currents. We can also stack in time with spring ephemerals and bearing plants throughout the year as well as succesionaly over the years. An example of that would be planting young chestnuts at 30 foot spacing and dwarf apple trees between them to supply a yield in the same space while the chestnuts are growing.
16: Apply Self Regulation and Accept Feedback
Always reassess and learn. And be open to learning from everyone! No design is ever done. Permaculture is a process, not a product.
Oil Spills as Solutions
‘The problem is the solution’ is one of my favorite principles in permaculture. This principle is not asking us to find systemic answers to problems but rather it is trying to get us to look at the problem in a new light and see it as a solution. Oil spills are definite problems. A systemic solution to the oil spill problem would be to remove the demand of oil. That would be lovely. Unfortunately we do not live in that world. We live in a world where oil spills happen, big oil spills. The dominant cultures answer to the oil spill problem is to dowse the oil with nasty chemicals to ‘disperse’ it, to essentially make it ‘disappear’ so people would stop talking about it. As is usually the case the dominant cultures answer to the problem was to make more problems. What would a permaculture response be? Can an oil spill be a solution? Just asking that question is powerful. It opens up a whole series of other questions like; what exactly is oil? And what exactly is the problem? Crude oil is buried sunlight. It is the result of the decomposition of organic matter in the absence of oxygen. There is very little oil being created now because the bottom of the oceans are rich in oxygen and a thriving ocean floor ecosystem eats the fallen organic matter and keeps it cycling. Fossil fuels are organic matter, carbon, that has been removed from the geophsiological cycles of the planet thanks to an anoxic (no oxygen) ocean bottom. We will get back to the geophysiology of carbon a little later but for now lets consider the oil. Most gardeners will tell you that decomposed organic matter is a pretty good addition to the soil. Crude oil is compost syrup. In fact the main problem with oil spills on the tundra is that the oil causes the plants to grow too fast and lush! The plants are unable to harden off by winter and die of exposure. The biggest problem with an oil spill in water is that algae eat the oil, reproduce like crazy and suck all the oxygen out of the water causing asphyxiation and a dead zone, just like the dead zone at the mouth of the Mississippi river where excess fertilizers (oil) cause the same problem (how ironic is that: our day to day lives perpetually create oil spills of huge magnitude).
So if crude oil (refined oil and its products are nasty toxic stuff) is compost syrup and it causes a dead zone because of excess growth and thus asphyxiation then the limiting factor is oxygen. What if instead of spending all that money and energy on toxic solutions we implemented massive oxygenation rigs over the spill? Perhaps we would get an explosion of life! Truly turning a problem into a solution. Now I don’t know if it would work but it sure is a better route and a better set of questions to ask. Now just to be clear, I am NOT advocating for oil spills and yes it breaks my heart to see all those otters and birds covered with oil and OBVIOUSLY the oil is best left in the ground, but I would have to say, in picking one out of two evils the oil is better off in the ocean than in the air. And it is you and I the citizen who give BP or Citgo a wad of cash every time we fill up saying here you go guys keep up the good work.
I don’t know why I torture myself and listen to NPR sometimes, very infrequently actually, but every time it gives me food for thought. I was listening to NPR a few months after the oil spill in the gulf and a panel of ‘experts’ was debating whether or not the oil spill was the biggest environmental disaster in the history of the United States. I couldn’t believe it. I desperately wanted to call in only I didn’t have a phone and it wasn’t a call in show anyway. The United States IS the biggest environmental disaster! How can anyone put into different categories an oil spill or a highway or a city? I mean have you ever seen Phoenix or Chicago or Houston or… I don’t mean to be misanthropic but the biggest problem the oil spill could have had on its own was to create a massive dead zone in the gulf and drive several turtle and bird species to extinction. Yes that’s terrible but everyday American life does that and much much more.
Now to get back to the geophysiology of oil. It turns out that the majority of fossil fuels were laid down during two extinction events 250 million years ago and 65 million years ago51. What these two extinction events had in common was the creation of an anoxic (no oxygen) ocean. Now what would cause this? I guess to start we would be better off asking what causes an oxic (oxygen rich) ocean? An ocean is oxic when there is wind and mainly ocean currents. And what causes these currents you ask? A temperature gradient, a large difference in temperature between the poles and equator. This temperature gradient exists now and so do the currents that mix oxygen rich surface water with nutrient rich water from the ocean floor.52 This mixing creates the conditions for a diverse and fecund ocean. In fact this is what we saw not so long ago in the oceans. Now what would cause the temperature gradient to minimize? You’ve guessed it: global heating. As stored carbon (fossil fuels) is put back into the geophysiological cycles temperatures rise. Polar temperatures see the greatest increase, melting polar ice caps, reversing the libido. Instead of the ice reflecting light and keeping the water cold we have dark water absorbing the heat and warming. As the polar water warms the temperature gradient between the equator and poles diminishes. At some point within the warming process the gradient is not steep enough for energy transfer and the great ocean currents turn off and with them goes the mixing of the water, nutrients and oxygen. The result is an anoxic ocean system and another mass extinction. Ironically the massive burning of fossil fuels created the conditions for the formation of more fossil fuels.
The best design gives the power to the people, the design is created for or is done by the people that are going to live with the design. In the dominant culture a designer is usually an abstract impositional authority while in permaculture the designer is best visualized as a listener. Explicit in the design process is teaching the people that will live with the design.
-Identify goals/yields -Identify resources/constraints -Observe site -Design -Implement incrementally -Feedback -Reassessment-ongoing evolution
In this design method individual elements (cow, house, pond, tree etc.) are analyzed for their inputs-what the elements need, and their outputs-what we can expect to yield. The elements are then placed in relationships so that they satisfy each other’s inputs by their outputs. We are not looking to force an element e.g. make a milk cow also pull logs or dig swales (ditches on contour that slow spread and sink water and nutrients) but rather allow the elements natural behavior to work for us. As an example we will use a chicken. Inputs: food, water, grit, protection, more chickens, dust, scratching space, oxygen, calcium. Outputs: methane, carbon dioxide, meat, feathers, eggs, more chickens, scratching, poop, heat, flying, fighting, bones. We can see how permaculture is imagination and information intensive. A garden supplies grit, scratching space, oxygen, dust, food and is in need of scratching, pest control, fertilizer and carbon dioxide so we can see that placing these two elements in relationship will reduce our need to apply energy to the system and increase our yields.
In modern agriculture elements are maximized in a design and not integrated e.g. monocultures of corn needing applications of fertilizer, pest control, and an annual disturbance to keep it in early succession (most of the time this is accomplished by tilling) and monocultures of chickens in factory farms that need the importation of food and all of their other needs together with the production of tremendous volumes of waste and poison in the form of ammonia and chicken poo. In both of these monoculture situations the farmer has to supply all the needs of the maximized yields (chickens or corn) and waste is produced (in the form of poisoned soil and air). In permaculture the farmer is more like a conductor placing elements in proper relationships so that the elements work for each other naturally and inevitably because of their innate behavior. The elements are optimized in the system not maximized and the farmer as conductor reaps diverse yields with no poisons (an output of any system that is not an input of another system) creating a diverse and fecund ecology. This design method helps us understand what an element needs and what it offers. This helps us place the elements in beneficial relationships.
In this design method we put names of elements on note cards as well as connecting terms such as ‘over’, ‘next to’, ‘below’ etc. We then take two cards from the elements pile and one from the connecting pile to come up with random connections to see if they make sense in any way. This allows us to break free from some of our preconceptions and creatively design our systems. Assemblies like barn on top of pond might not make any sense at first but if we think about it we could see that part of the barn or coop over a pond would add nutrients to the pond and food for fish and ducks.
Zone, Sector, Slope and Soil Analysis
In this design method we analyze a site for its zone, sector, slope and soil and use that information to place elements in the landscape. These design methods are intended to be used in conjunction. In input/output we can start to understand beneficial relationships, in random assemble we can break free from some mental roadblocks and finally in zone, sector, and slope analysis we can see how some of these relationships and elements can be applied to the landscape.
Zones: a zone is a spatial abstraction that facilitates us in designing a site. We talk of zones 0-5 with zone 0 being you the individual and then working outward to zone 5-a place where we seldom go and a place where we observe how natural systems operate.
Zone 1: we place elements in zone one that we will visit the most. What is placed in any zone will be different for different people, communities, and landscapes. Some examples of what we have placed in zone 1 are: chicken coops, gardens, nursery, outdoor kitchen/hangout zone, ponds, greenhouse, coldframes, woodshed and toolshed.
Zone 2: Some examples of what we have placed in zone two are; food forests, tree fort, timber shed, barn, smoke house, gardens, swimming pond and parking area.
Zone 3: Examples: chicken runs, perennial polycultures, food forests, dairy cow pollarded meadows and woods pasture.
Zone 4: Examples: sugar shack, food forests, pasture, coppice stands and saw mill.
Zone 5: Examples: wild areas down by the river where we wild harvest fungus, ramps, ostrich fern and herbs. Also county and national forest land.
What is in zone 1 for one family or community member might not be for another (the barn is a zone 1 for me as I go there at least twice a day but more of a zone 3 for my wife as she visits it far less often). An element might be in zone one for a couple of seasons and then zone 4 for a season, as an example, we visit our wood shed at least once a day in the winter but hardly at all the rest of the year, we visit our gardens several times a day in spring and fall but not at all in the winter whereas we visit our chicken coop twice a day throughout the year.
In a lot of permaculture books zones are visualized as concentric circles. This visualization is not helpful as it doesn’t make explicit the unique character of each site; soil type, slope, existing vegetation, social dynamics etc. Zone one is usually found directly around a house site but also extends from there along paths to other zone ones (maybe a chicken coop), because we travel along that path several times a day the area around the path turns into a zone one and should be utilized by placing elements along the path that either supply us food along the way (raspberries, strawberries etc.) or other elements that need our attention often. Our path to the barn is along the dam of a pond so we can watch the seasons change along the pond, see the ducks foraging, harvest the strawberries and raspberries along the trail, and observe the perennial polyculture on the other side of the path and the chickens and pigs that forage in it.
Zone five has two useful applications in design. It can be looked at as a place where our acts don’t dominate so that we have a place to observe how nature operates without us so we can learn and apply that to our site (the higher yielding our zone 1-2-3-4 the more zone five of this type we can have). Zone five can also be looked at as a place where we hardly go because it is hard to get into. Zone fives of this type are useful in creating areas of privacy in close proximity to each other. For example in our community we have a common house where all meals are taken together and then several small family houses with no kitchen, dining or bathing areas, these small family houses are individual zone 1’s and can be separated from the more common space and each other by small zone fives of balsam fir thickets or blackberry/raspberry thickets etc.
Sectors: sectors are energies that are entering the land, such as: wind, sun, animals, humans, fire, water, view, and weather. It is up to us to decide whether we are going to open up, block, deflect or concentrate these energies on our site. Some of the sectors have more than one component to them, wind can be broken down into dominate winds (generally NW winds in the northern hemisphere because of how the Earth spins), storm winds (from the NE for us) and summer drying winds (S here). The sun has a very well known path throughout the year with its oscillation in the sky between summer and winter. The water sector enters our site via overland flow in the form of rivers and streams, from above in the form of rain, snow, hail and sleet, in the ground as ground water or springs as well as in soil organic matter. Fire spreads up hill and is generally started by lightening on very dry ground or caused by humans, therefore the fire sector and human sector are the same a lot of the time. Often time a view corridor is a sector and we either want to open up to it or block ourselves from it.
Slope: Slope is of special significance in design because of its potential energy, its affect on sectors, and our consideration of erosion. The higher on the slope water can be stored the more potential energy we have accumulated. This is true for any heavy material; storing wood or hay above its use point will save us a lot of energy. Characteristics of points high on a slope: dry, thin soil, high wind, high erosion potential and high potential energy. Characteristics of points low on a slope: wet, thick soils, low wind, low erosion potential and low potential energy.
Soil: soil is fundamental in design. When we first visited the land that was to become ‘the draw’, my home, I dug many hundreds of holes, and created a detailed soil map. Different soil types lend themselves to different uses. Deep fertal loamy soils should be used for intensive cultivation, poor degraded soils can be used for building sites, nursery site, ponds est.
Using zone, sector, and slope analysis we can start to apply elements and relationships on the site. For example a pine tree could be placed to block storm winds (as part of a wind break), away from a sun sector (to not block light to places that need it), out of the fire sector as it explodes in a fire storm and in a zone 4 as we don’t need to visit it much and it should produce edible nuts.
Zone, sector, slope and soil analysis is meant to be applied in conjunction with the design process listed above-specifically observation of site (obtaining a detailed soil map by digging hundreds of holes is a must) and identification of goals, resources and constraints, as well as other design methods (input/output and random assembly). For example we placed our common house in a spot where the soil was transitioning from loam to clay, behind the house on the loam are our biggest gardens and food forest, to the south of the house in clay is our common outside space (kitchen, gazebo, lawn), pond and nursery. The common house was sited closer to the access in a more public space while our smaller private buildings were placed away from the access and across ponds to create a sense of privacy.
Basic human material needs must be applied to any good design but we must also account for nonmaterial needs and create spaces and transition zones for a human to be fully human.53 In our design we focused on creating a lot of ecotypes in a small area both for the biological capital they generate and for the social and personal creative space they allow for. The transition areas between these is also very important. Transitions that squeeze an area such as a vine on trellis over a path or a narrowing of the path and a sudden transition of grade with a pinching of shrubs allows for people to feel like they are transitioning between two distinct energies. A diversity of ‘human microclimates’ allows for a creative and spiritual relationship to form between the land and human that must accompany any permaculture. This is true for adults and children. Children must be made to feel comfortable and a part of the land for them to fully embrace the culture we are imposing on them. Only when they have a spiritual and creative relationship with the land will they stay making the community a multigenerational body and beneficial organism on the land.
A good design should achieve54
-a reduction in the need to earn (conservation of production of food and energy costs) -repair and conservation of degraded landscapes, soils, buildings, and species. -a sustainable product in the short/medium/long term -a unique, preferably essential service or product for the region. -sound and safe legal status for the occupiers -a harmonious and productive landscape without wastes or poisons -be a cooperative and information rich part of a regional society
The points on good design above were taken from Bill Mollisons ‘Designers Manual’ I would say that a good design should achieve an integration of culture and ecosystem. We must strive to design a culture and lifeway that cocreates diverse and fecund ecosystems. To be fully human is to be a beneficial organism in a functioning ecosystem, it is humanities only hope for survival.
The Problem With Permaculture.
I’m excited about permaculture. Bubbling, really, with possibilities. I wake up every morning and am thankful to have the opportunity to be co-creating a cultivated eco/social system. People come to see what we are up to and ask questions about what we are doing, “what do you call it” they say. Well I try my best and on my good days am able to transfer some understanding of just what we are up to. I call it ecological design or regenerative design, but more often than not I call it permaculture design. ‘Permaculture, oh I’ve heard of that’ some say. In my mind this is a good thing, the word automatically plugs us into a network of people and places that are trying their best to create a sustainable world. A non-dogmatic decentralized pulsing spider web of a network. A network embedded in an epistemology, a way of knowing, that is entirely different than the dominant epistemology. A network on the edge of knowledge and understanding, one experimenting with design scenarios, placing elements in relationships and relationships in relationships hoping to set the stage for those emergent phenomena that living systems embody: resilience, abundance, beauty, grace….. Well for some this word ‘permaculture’ is a good thing. I am finding out that for others it is not. At first I found myself befuddled, bamboozled. Huh, I would say…… Huh. I admit, my feelings were hurt. I disagreed, I defended, I debated. Negative viewpoints kept popping up.
“Ya it’s sounds like a good idea” I would hear, “but no one is making a living at it”. –“That’s the problem with permaculture; too much to integrate and too much to know”
“It doesn’t surprise me that it’s a 10-day course. I mean isn’t that the whole point, rubber stamp the certificate to get paid and send a % to papa Mollison via the copyright.”
Why, I asked myself, all this negativity? Is permaculture flawed? Do we need to change the word that we rally behind? Or is there a different problem, a more systemic problem that such a solution would ignore? It seems to me that the problem with permaculture is a problem of perspective and human emotion. I hear so often that TV is the devil, or that it’s the school system or the medias fault, something, anything other than our selves. Well then if that’s the case, if we take away all media, all televisions etc, would all our problems disappear? Would we be automatically transformed as a species, living in perfect harmony? I live without a TV, radio, or Internet. I live with a beautiful family and beautiful land and yet I still feel frustration, anger, and pride. The ‘problem’ that needs to be addressed is not permaculture but these basic human emotions. Now when I hear; “….no one is making a living at it.” What I really here is, “I want to be acknowledged for what I’ve done with my piece of land.” Unfortunately, a lot of the times I hear negative comments on permaculture what I really hear is another way for people to excuse themselves from change.
Don’t get me wrong, there are challenges associated with permaculture. The social and political infrastructures make it difficult for anyone to earn a viable income on a human scale land holding. But these aren’t problems, they’re design challenges. And for those of us who like to see the positive in things we will find them in permaculture.
Agriculture can take on many faces depending on the perspective we approach it from. I see all possible perspectives on a continuum with modern green revolution agriculture on one end and ecological systems on the other. We could say that on one end we have an agricultural perspective and on the other an ecological perspective. If I were to draw out this continuum, agricultural systems like IPM (integrated pest management) and organic agriculture would fall to the middle with organic agriculture approaching an ecological system more then IPM. But I believe that these two agricultural systems, IPM and Organics, are beginning from an agricultural perspective and moving towards an ecological perspective. We are all dependent on agriculture for our existence. Whether the farmer is in California, New Zealand, or Ashland we depend on them for our daily bread. I believe that in the coming years our dependence on local agriculture will grow exponentially. Food traveling from half way across the world will bear the burden of food traveling half way across the world. We are also all dependent on natural systems for our existence. Ecosystem services like clean air and water are priceless. The sheer scale, as well as the quality, of our footprint on the planet is compromising the ability of the Earths ecosystems to function. The majority of our human systems, whether they be political, industrial, or agricultural, are linear systems with raw materials at the beginning and waste at the end. They are designed to maximize one or a few variables and ‘externalize’ both ‘waste’ and necessary inputs. This is simple to understand when we imagine a modern farm with its vast acreage of monocrop, whether it be wheat, soy, corn, or apple trees, that imports its fertility and pest management while exporting its waste as polluted humans, air, water, and soil. These lineal human systems contrast greatly with ecological systems. Nowhere in nature outside of humanity do we find lineal systems. There is no such thing as waste in an ecological system. Waste = food. Ecological systems are cyclical. Instead of maximizing for any one variable, ecological systems optimize variables. That is to say that Ecological systems look at a system in all their yields. With an ecological perspective we see the system as a whole that is more than the sum of its parts and we design for the quality of the whole by optimizing each part. What is an optimum level of a part is that level where the whole will be healthiest. The whole includes more than the commodities, it includes the soil, the water, the air, people, and all of our fellow living beings. An ecologically functioning farm would not only provide the purely human services that modern agriculture provides (food, fiber, medicine etc.), but also would provide those priceless ecological services like clean air and water. With an ecological perspective we understand that there is no magic land of away, that we can not externalize pollution and expect to remain healthy. Individual health = global health. We also understand that a farm that continues to import necessary inputs, fertilizer, pesticides, even if they are organic, is unsustainable. An ecologically functioning farm is a tightly cycled farm that creates its own fertility and resiliency. So that then is the charge to any would be sustainable farmer: create a farm that is a self-sustaining functioning ecosystem that creates surplus yield for market. Not an easy task yet a desperately necessary one.
If we are to model our farms after ecosystems we have to understand what an ecosystem is. One simple definition for an ecosystem is: a community of species interacting among themselves and with the physical environment. We must ask ourselves: what is the nature of these interactions? When looked at from the light of the whole or the parts these interactions are understood to be interdependencies. And the interdependencies relate to functions. For example, no organism can both photosynthesize and decompose. Cooperation, not competition, is the basic model of interaction in an ecosystem. For example, an apple tree depends on its pollinators to set fruit. But the pollinators cannot survive an entire year on two weeks of apple pollen so in a very real way that apple tree also depends on the juneberry that is flowering before it and the basswood that flowers after. To model our farm after an ecosystem we must understand all of the functions that a healthy ecosystem performs. Photosynthesis, decomposition, pollination, rock weathering and subsoil mining, nitrogen fixation, predation and herbivory are just some of the functions that we have to incorporate into our agricultural systems. We also must understand how these functions, and the elements that perform them relate structurally and in time. There is a lot to know but nature is a great teacher and we have learned a lot. There is a lot going for an ecological farmer for these interactions we are talking about are synergistic. This is the idea that the whole is more than the sum of the parts. The behavior of the whole system is unpredictable when we look at the parts alone. No matter how much we know about the parts, we could know every detail, the whole is unpredictable because it emerges from the interactions. Gravity is a synergistic effect and emerges from the relationship of two masses. It is not deducible from analyzing either mass. Similarly, resilience and productivity emerge from ecological interactions. We do not need to know every detail of the parts to create a self-sustaining functioning ecosystem with excess yield. But we do need to design our lives and our farms mimicking ecological principles and patterns.
So what then would an ecological farm look like. I want to take a look in detail at one aspect of our farm. We desire to grow perennial fruit and nut crops on our farm. What is usually done in this regard is that one or a few specific commodities are integrated into the farm in the form of an orchard. It is common to find an acre to 100 acre blocks of land planted entirely to apples. This is a very simplistic ecosystem. One yield is maximized, that of apples, generally no other yields are asked of the system. To maintain these very simplistic ecosystems the farmer must intervene to perform many of the functions that an ecosystem normally performs such as fertilization, pest control, and pollination. These inputs, and the waste and pollution they produce, are externalized. The orchard system is lineal with the farmer expending unnecessary energy, time, and money while the farm ecosystem itself as well as the surrounding ecosystem and planet as a whole experience unnecessary waste and pollution. These problems are related. In fact they are one and the same. The intention to grow perennial fruit and nut crops is actualized in a different manner when approached from an ecological perspective. The commodities: fruits and nuts, are optimized not maximized. Many yields are asked from the system including ecological functions such as fertilization, pollination, pest control, and those priceless ecological services: clean air and water. The idea of commodities is expanded as well to include things such as fodder, fuel, fiber, medicine, and possibly aesthetic enjoyment; we have you pick berry patches what about you pick food forests. A changing market, informed citizenry, and a sustainable home economy are aspects of the social and economic infrastructure that must parallel a transition to ecological agriculture. Instead of an orchard then, we planted a food forest. The acre of land is not a monoculture of apple trees but rather a highly diverse polyculture with over a hundred species of perennial plants as well as annuals that filled our bellies in the warm months and our cellar for the cold ones. The diversity was not strewn willy-nilly over the acreage but was designed carefully to create functional interdependence in both time and space. The function fertilization was incorporated by planting 30% of the horizon habitat, the habitat that normally includes only apple trees, to nitrogen fixing trees. These trees produce enough nitrogen for their use as well as their neighbors and at that percentage no nitrogen will need to be brought in from outside the system in the long run. In the short run, as all these plants are young and small, we planted nitrogen fixing shrubs about 3-4 feet away from each horizon habitat tree, that is each apple, chestnut, stone pine, oak, cherry, apricot, and quince. These will be trimmed back hard each spring to release a significant quantity of nitrogen into the soil to be taken up by the fruit or nut tree. These shrubs are resilient and grow back well from this culture. These elements, the nitrogen fixers, serve more than one function; they are also used for mulch, fuel, and food as they all have either extremely medicinal fruit or deliciously edible flowers. They also add habitat and food for beneficial insects and animals, attracting and providing for pollinators and pest predators. Nitrogen is not the only element necessary for ecosystem health. We have also incorporated into the system dynamic accumulators, also called subsoil miners, that drive their taproot deep into the soil bringing up subsoil nutrients such as phosphorus, potassium, and calcium. Just replacing the ground cover layer with more herbaceous plants and less grass helps the fruit and nut trees compete better for water and nutrients. A lot of these herbaceous plants also provide habitat and food for beneficials as well as food and medicine for us as those plants rich in minerals are generally medicinal, these include dandelion, dock, comfrey, borage, nasturtium, dill, fennel, buckwheat, and many many more. The function pollination is actualized by planting so as to have flowering plants all through the growing season. This is especially important for farms that are surrounded by monoculture landscapes. This is not only aesthetically pleasing but functional in that it attracts beneficials at all times of the year so you have a standing population ready for any pathogen outbreak or any flowers that need pollinating. The function pest control follows from the previous two functions; fertilization and pollination. Having a diverse and highly interconnected system promotes a healthy and abundant landscape. The element of time is incorporated in the system as well. As we saw earlier, designing to have flowering plants flowering through the growing season is an important functional aspect that has a time element. Another element of time that is important to consider is succesional time, or the time it takes for the fruit and nut trees to reach their mature size. The conditions of your agricultural ecosystem change greatly from the time you plant to when the plants are mature. The timeframe is different for different plants and different still for different rootstocks. You could have anywhere between 5 and 25 years of high light availability before the system becomes shady and more forest like. For our food forest we planted every level of succession at once to take advantage of the time element. Between chestnuts, standard apples, oaks, and stone pines we planted juneberries and plums, dwarf apples, hazelnuts and hawthorns, raspberries, gooseberries, currants and paw paws. As these plants are also small to start we planted strawberries and annuals between them. As the ecosystem matures we will transition our annual agriculture to another younger food forest and to permanent annual gardens. In shadier pockets of the young food forest we have planted nuclei of multifunctional shade tolerant plants including, wintergreen, salal, oregon grape, uva ursi, woodland strawberry, schorzinera, ground cover raspberry, spicebush and hardy kiwi. As the food forest matures these nuclei will merge to create a multifunctional shade tolerant understory. We are attempting to create more than a self-sustaining low maintenance over yielding polyculture, we also wish for our agricultural ecosystem to provide those ecosystem services that we depend upon for our survival. Simply by filling as many niches as possible and connecting the system to more of itself an agricultural ecosystem goes a long ways to fulfilling this goal. We have also used the brush we acquired through clearing the thicket that existed before the food forest to stuff fast eroding ravines, build contour dams on the slope and build a brush fence to keep deer out. We have seen a significant change in the nature of the water that leaves our land. Initially the water ran fast and dirty carrying a lot of sediment to the river. Now, after these measures plus some swaling, which is a ditch on contour, water slows and sinks, dropping its sediment load and moving where it should, through the soil. We are building soil in the ravines and on our upland instead of eroding it. We are extending the life of the river below by extending the time that it takes water to reach it as well as cleaning it of sediment. We hope that if others take this approach to the Raspberry river it will return to its presettlement condition of a cold, clear and perennial trout stream. All watersheds deserve our consideration. A food forest is so much more than an orchard, it is a functioning component of the biosphere as well as a producer of goods for human consumption. It is a diverse, resilient, self-sustaining, over-yielding polyculture that is ethically fulfilling, aesthetically pleasing, and intellectually stimulating.
Approaching agriculture from an ecological perspective we design food forests not orchards. We design meadows and marshes, not grain fields or pastures. And we would look at how these different agricultural ecosystems interact with each other, with the surrounding land, and with the social and economic infrastructure of the family, community, and bioregion to create that ecosystem we call a farm.55
Agriculture as ecosystem co-creation has precedent. Indigenous cultures (not all indigenous cultures mind you) all over the world have stewarded diverse and fecund ecosystems.56 I want to discuss in detail one example that of pre 1492 eastern North America. The received account of pre 1492 Americas is a sparsely populated continent of hunter-gatherers, a simple, primitive culture. A short aside, that we can think of hunter-gatherers as primitive and our industrial society as advanced is absurd. What is ‘advanced’, a culture that is cocreating diverse and fecund ecosystems or one that is destroying the very fabric of its being? Hunter-gatherers are not passive gleaners on an abundant landscape, they are active participants and co-creators of that ecosystem with vast knowledge of botany, soils, climate, pathology, geology, animal biology etc. The story emerging from anthropologists of pre 1492 America is quite different from the received account; visualize densely populated continents with sophisticated cultures.57 Initial contact of Europeans to eastern North America in the 16th century depict a densely populated continent, a continent that the Europeans had no hopes of settling. Later European voyages found a devastated continent with up to 90% Native American die off. No history of exposure to domesticated animals and their diseases, a fairly uniform genome thanks to the Bearing Strait bottleneck, immune systems primed to deal more with parasites than bacteria, initial contacts involving swine, and a culture who didn’t burn the dead or their things all helped spread ‘old world’ diseases at wildfire speed. Second wave European contacts describe park like forests teeming with ‘game’ and rivers so thick with fish you could walk across them. The forests were diverse and contained many a nut and fruit tree. Chestnuts made up one out of every four trees in its range, walnuts, butternuts, hickory and oaks provided copious food for forest inhabitants including humans. Many people think that white pines dominated the forests and that we should work to reinstall these forest giants, but what the first land lookers found were pockets of white pine in the middle of food forests. These pine stands were even aged giants that played a huge role in the economy of the colonists. Far from being climax community members, white pines are early succession pioneers with light wind blown seed that needs open soil to germinate and high light levels to grow. These forests were fecund thanks to the high concentration of nut trees. Some of the numbers are staggering, the number of beaver pelts coming out of the eastern forests, passenger pigeons darkening the skies for days at a time, millions of buffalo and elk and deer! What these Europeans were seeing was what ecologists call an ecological release. When 90% of the top predators (humans) in an ecosystem die off, their prey and other predators will increase to fill the void. Passenger pigeons are nut eating forest birds. Anthropologists have found that passenger pigeons made up a very small portion of bones in human settlements pre 149258, it was only after most of the nut crop was not harvested by humans that pigeon numbers skyrocketed. Europeans did not discover a primitive passive hunter-gatherer culture gleaning a fecund landscape, a stable culture that had existed that way for a long time. Instead what they found was a decimated culture with ecosystems experiencing ecological release. The white pine pockets in the middle of food forests were human settlements that were abandoned in the aftermath of plagues. The food forests were actively co-created by a very sophisticated culture creating an agriculture that the plow culture could not see. The food forests provided for a very dense human culture as well as acting as organs in Gaias body, we could do no better than that.
The Amazonian basin is another area that is vastly misunderstood. The received account is that of sparse groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers living in a biome (tropical rainforest) that inherently can not support many humans because of such quick cycling times, i.e. all the nutrients are locked up in the structure of the forest and not in the soil to be tapped. The emerging anthropological consensus is just the opposite, a densely populated human culture using biochar (charcoal used in agricultural systems to bind nutrients, humic acids, and water, as well as acting as a population center for bacteria and fungi, more on this later) to circumvent the supposed limiting factor of nutrient supply. The surviving groups of hunter gatherers represent a cultural response to intense human die off. Not much is known of the agricultural systems of these Amazonians other than the use of biochar and the thick ‘terra preta’ (Amazonian dark soils) that they produced. An interesting aside is that upon human die off because of disease in the 16th century, the forests of the Americas swallowed up what was settled open land. This great Gain inbreath of the forests lead to a dip in the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, which led to the 18th centuries ‘little ice age’. Plants are still responding to this climactic period, in the northern hemisphere some plants ranges are still expanding west and north. For example, black locust was native to the new England states until the little ice age when its range contracted south, now the black locust is moving west and north. Massachusetts, a state that from an ecological perspective would call black locust ‘native’ in a few decades thanks to the plants natural migrations, has banned the importation of the tree calling it an exotic invasive!
I would like to present a specific example of a group of people trying to embody an ecological epistemology in their own bodies, lifestyles, community and land. We are a land based community on the south shore of Lake Superior, we call ourselves ‘the draw’. A draw is defined as a place where energy accumulates and flows through, it can be seen on the landscape as the first slight concavity in a watershed. It is our goal to be the change we want to see in the world, questioning everything about how we were trained to live and attempting to create a regenerative culture. I prefer the term ‘regenerative culture’ to ‘permaculture’ because regenerative culture makes it explicit that the composition and structure of the culture will always be regenerating; changing in response to context, as the context changes in response to the culture. We can look at it as cultural drift. What is permanent is a set of ethics and a way of knowing. We are too far gone as a people, culture and landbase to instantly jump in to a ‘permaculture’, it’s just not possible. What is possible is to start the transition.
In the design of say a food forest the farthest distant (temporally) habitat designed is called the ‘horizon habitat’. I think it would be helpful here to articulate a ‘horizon culture’ and then describe steps we can take to get there. Humans have been humans for about two million years. A baby born today is the same as one that was born in the Pleistocene. Raise up a baby in a Pleistocene type culture today and it will assimilate into it just as a baby born in Chicago today will assimilate into a suicide culture. By far the longest running cultures in our history are tribal hunter/gatherer cultures. The ‘taker culture’, to use a Danielle Quinne expression, is merely 10-12,000 years old. Compare that to the two million years of our species! There are many fine books59 written by people who have lived with or studied in situ, indigenous tribal peoples and nearly all of them indicate the level of physical, psychological, ecological and societal well being. Our modern conception of ego is this individualized self almost entirely out of context. Compare that with the conception of self of most tribal peoples; the individual human is a real part of a greater body that encompasses the entire community, all of the ancestors, all of the future descendents and the land. The land is rich with meaning everywhere, every stone, tree, hill is endowed with power. We moderns have a hard time understanding this more then just cognitively. Essentially we’ve been robbed of that ‘greater body’, of the full experience of what it means to be human. We must begin the transition to an in situ, indigenous, tribal culture that cocreates diverse and fecund ecosystems using all three neural centers (heart, solar plexus and brain) in a holistic/emergent way. Were loving yourself is loving everything.
So what does that actually look like? Firstly we determined that the nuclear family paradigm is lethal, that humans are made to live in a larger community. Here is what the ‘Pattern Language’, an excellent book on architecture and design, has to say about the nuclear family paradigm: “The nuclear family is not by itself a viable social form. Until a few years ago, human society was based on the extended family: a family of at least three generations, with parents, children, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, all living together in a single or loosely knit multiple household. But today people move hundreds of miles to marry, to find education, and to work. Under these circumstances the only family units which are left are those units called nuclear families: father, mother and children. And many of these are broken down even further by divorce and separation. Unfortunately, it seems very likely that the nuclear family is not a viable social form, it is too small. Each person in a nuclear family is too tightly linked to other members of the family; any one relationship which goes sour, even for a few hours, becomes critical; people cannot simply turn away toward uncles, aunts, grandchildren, cousins, brothers. Instead, each difficulty twists the family unit into ever tighter spirals of discomfort; the children become prey to all kinds of dependencies and oedipal neuroses; the parents are so dependent on each other that they are finally forced to separate.” So then we aspire to be a community of people. At this point we are 7, my wife and two daughters as well as three young men. We have temporary people, interns (co-creators), students and guests, coming and going especially in the spring/summer/fall months. We are open to more members. We are looking for people that are committed to our vision. We expect people to become family members, giving everything they are for the whole. We are looking to create a tribe, were everyone depends on each other and the land. No money is expected but a person that would become a member would give all they have as we would give them all we have. Perspective members do not need to be skilled, just passionate and willing to learn. We believe that perspective members must share our story. By definition all historical indigenous in situ tribes shared the same way of knowing, the same story. Diversity is wonderful but only diversity within the same story. I lived in a community once with wonderful people but they didn’t all share the same story and this paralyzed them. Some thought humans were inherently parasitic and had a ‘hands off’ approach to land management and others thought that humans, simply by being alive, are land managers and have the potential to be beneficial organisms. We make decisions by consensus, that is everyone has to agree. This does not mean that everyone always 100% agrees with a decision. The idea is that everyone brings a piece of the truth and that if we work together we can come up with decisions that would be better than any one person could. We depend on each other and trust each other.60
We have also made the decision at this point to have a ‘settlement’. Land ownership, while abhorrent from an ecological perspective, allows us to have control over a piece of land. We have to remember that no matter how much we despise the dominant culture it represents part of our context. It would be much more difficult to pursue a regenerative lifestyle by a modern nomadic existence. Also our ecosystems at this point are not rich enough to support many humans as they have been so greatly taken from for so many generations. Not just any place can support a human community indefinitely. Humans are just too intense of an energy suck. We have giant fatty brains that constantly demand nourishment and a tiny digestive system to provide it. This adds up to the fact that humans demand high quality nutrition, essentially we suck the fat off of a landscape. A cow has three huge stomachs and spends a considerable amount of time and energy turning grass into cow. Humans can’t live off grass. This brings us to transition ethics. The dominant culture uses a tremendous amount of energy to degrade biological systems. Energy is copious in our culture and will most likely be used by someone somewhere. We can tap into that energy stream and use it to enhance biological systems. Not just any piece of land will suffice for a human settlement. Humans need serious nutrition and no matter how tightly we cycle our system if the nutrients do not exist on site to begin with then they can’t be cycled. Our site offers much potential but its initial nutrient content was low so we imported a tremendous amount of embodied energy in the form of calcium phosphorus (the p in NPK), greensand (the K) and kelp (micronutrients)
Bulldozers and backhoes efficiently destroy biological systems; but if used in an appropriate way will jump-start a landscape increasing its richness. Man-made deserts are a good example of this. The forests and savannahs that had existed created the conditions for their own existence. As these ecosystems were removed the conditions changed, rain instead of gently falling to the ground and soaking in hits the ground hard, compacting and eroding it, forming gullies. Rain falls less as the evapotransporation from trees, cloud seeding and subsoil pumping of groundwater all cease. Humans can recreate structure that will start the positive feedbacks of soil building quickly using machines. Swales (on contour ditches) will slow and sink runoff water; pocking (the creation of small holes in the Earth) create conditions for water, nutrient and organic matter infiltration; and gully stabilization using rock as well as tree planting and mulching all help retain water in the landscape increasing its availability to plants. In humid climates the creation of ponds increases the amount of stored water in the landscape and creates a fecund ecological system. The key is that we use unsustainable energy from the dominant culture to create and enhance biological systems. And we use this energy only in the start up phase of a system not in maintenance. That’s the problem I have with Sepp Holtzer’s61 permaculture, he continually uses machines to create his hugoculture beds. So then we have used machines in the creation of biological systems, ponds and infiltration basins, but have designed our systems so that machines and their unsustainable and polluting selves will not be needed after the initial start up.
At this point my family lives in the ‘common house’, a 3000 square foot straw bale building with earthen plasters, earthen floors, passive solar design, and an attached greenhouse and root cellar. We are not hooked up to the grid (energy, water or sewer) and do not use any fossil fuels outside of a chain saw, and a gas powered back up generator (which we hardly ever use) to our solar system. We originally cut all of our wood, both for building and firewood, with a crosscut saw and axes and relied entirely on hand tools for construction. The pace with which we worked created less than desirable human physical degradation. In short I couldn’t feel my hands for months at a time. If I could keep one fossil fuel using machine around in a permaculture I would defiantly pick the chainsaw! Ultimately the most important part of an energy system is limiting the amount of electricity needed for a system. At this point we run two freezers to store meat but are working on learning techniques to store meat that do not require freezing such as dry curing and jerky. We have a well and pump water supplying water for the common house and to start a lot of perennial plants in our for sale nursery. More on the water system and nursery later. We also use lights in the barn and common house as well as power tools. As the pace of our infrastructure establishment slow our need for power tools will decline and ultimately stop. Ultimately we will live entirely without electricity using solar (with no batteries) to pump water to a high storage on the landscape and gravity-feed to supply water on demand, using hand tools except for when we can use power tools (when the sun is shining) and living without electric lights and the copper they need.
Firewood is the main energy source we use now and will be the only energy source we use in the near future. All seven billion of us can not use firewood or biomass to fuel their lifestyles as they exist now, there would be no biomass left. And just cutting down the forest willy nilly to power modest energy use lifestyles is not ethical either. What we need is a way to harvest firewood that enhances ecosystem diversity and fecundity. Thankfully this is possible. Using short rotation coppice of fast growing nitrogen fixing, dynamic accumulating trees that also provide fodder for animals and nectar for bees in a dynamic system including food plants and animals will allow us to have our cake and eat it too. A coppicable species is a tree that is able to resprout from the stump after being cut down. If we cut the tree when it is dormant then it will have the energy to sprout strongly growing quickly and in most cases being ready to harvest (2-3 6-9” diameter poles) every 10-15 years indefinitely. Coppice stands in Great Britain are hundreds to a thousand years old. Proper management of a coppice stool (one coppiced tree) i.e harvesting when dormant and thinning of the sprouts to two or three, extends the life of the tree by hundreds of years. If we cut the tree just before the leaves start to turn colors then we can harvest wood as well as fodder for our animals. Cutting the tree any earlier than this will not allow the tree to have stored enough energy to sprout vigorously. If we choose species that fix nitrogen, such as alder or black locust (in our neck of the woods), then the soil will become more rich with time as the roots are constantly growing and dying releasing nitrogen, leaf fall for the 10-15 years between harvest will enrich the soil and the pulse of root death upon harvesting will flush considerable amount of nitrogen into the soil. Black locust is also a dynamic accumulator sending its tap root deep into the earth pulling up water and nutrients and making them available to more shallow rooted plants, it is also a good fodder plant and great bee plant, it casts a light shade making it possible to grow plants in its nutrient rich understory. Thin poles also make good firewood as it is easy to saw through and no splitting is necessary. The wood is rot resistant and strong and making roundwood buildings is easy, fun, and rewarding. The other factor we need to consider with firewood is the carbon dioxide released upon burning. In the modern anthropocene, carbon dioxide is a problem and a truly regenerative culture would be drawing down carbon out of the atmosphere, not adding it. The design of the coppice system with appropriate swales to catch and store water and biomass, and the integration of the coppice into food production systems, will go a long way to building carbon via root turnover and leaf fall over the time between harvest. This carbon building in the form of soil humus is significant, stable, and biologically important. We still need to consider the carbon released by burning of the wood. First we must use the energy wisely. In our home we cook with wood on a wood cookstove but in the summer months focus on using solar cookers (a cooker that focuses the suns energy, like a satellite dish, to cook food) and eating raw or cooking with an acid. We heat our buildings with extremely efficient masonry heaters that catch and store the vast majority of the heat in their massive bodies, slowly metering it out to the surroundings. Second we have chosen to sequester carbon in our burning by designing woodstoves that make biochar. Carbon trading and other government proposals to ‘solve’ the climate crises are shell games created to make you the consumer feel good about your lifestyle so you can keep on consuming and destroying the planet. Biochar is a real way to draw out carbon as the char is a stable source of carbon for thousands of years. When a plant grows it takes in carbon dioxide and builds its body sequestering that atmospheric carbon. When it dies most of the carbon is respired back into the atmosphere, a small amount sequestered in soil humus (assuming the soil wasn’t disturbed when it died forcing the carbon out of the system and into water and air). When the biomass is burned all the carbon is released back to the air; but when it is burned in the absence of oxygen, in a process called pyrolisis, most of the carbon is sequestered in the char for thousands of years. Biochar is charcoal that has been created to ensure its biological activity (needing certain burning temperatures to burn all the potentially poisonous volatile oils leaving a carbon lattice). Biochar is a stable form of carbon persisting for at least 60,000 years. Thus when we make biochar we are taking out of the atmosphere the carbon that built the tree for 60,000 years! Biochar is also ecologically significant as its carbon lattice sops up nutrients and organic matter, electromagnetically binding it to its body, keeping them from washing out of the system and making them available to plants and fungi. It is best to saturate the biochar with nutrients and bacteria before applying to soil. Different ways to do this are by putting it in the bedding for animals, in compost piles, or as we do in a three gallon bucket that we urinate in at night. Biochar is also a great structure for bacteria, plant roots, and mycelium (fungal roots) to expand and proliferate in the soil. Agricultural systems could be designed for fast growing nitrogen fixing coppice production for biomass to turn into biochar and the biochar being applied back to the site to stimulate biology. If this coppice production was integrated into an agricultural context, say a food forest with pockets of annual production on a human scale, then it could become a pretty serious ally in our attempt to create a permaculture. Only in this way, as an integrated component of a human scale permaculture utilizing fast growing nitrogen fixing coppice can biochar be a useful ally. If biochar is accepted as a solution by the powers that be and applied within their epistemology then we are in serious trouble, as our forests would be turned into char; as Albert Einstein said “a problem can’t be solved in the paradigm that created it”. Applying biochar back into our coppice, food, fiber, fodder, medicinal and ethical/spiritually rewarding polyculture helps us cocreate a diverse and fecund ecosystem that can support our relatively modest human needs. Merely producing biochar is not enough and the ‘waste’ heat that is generated in pyrolisis (the production of biochar) should be used for other applications such as cooking and space heating. At this point our sauna stove is designed to make biochar, as are our masonry heaters. When we get around to it we will design and build an indoor cookstove to produce biochar. The firing of ceramics and boilers for steam engines would also be excellent places to stack functions by producing biochar.62
As was mentioned earlier, in our agriculture we are attempting to co-create diverse and fecund ecosystems. Historically our land was part of the most southern portion of the boreal forest (due to Lake Superior: intense winter snow pack delaying spring and cool/short summers. Hemlock, sugar maple, basswood, yellow birch, arbor vitae, black ash, and ironwood dominated forests of older structure with balsam fir, quaking aspen, white spruce, speckled alder, white and red pine, red maple, and red oak dominated younger structure forests. When European/Americans first settled the area the prime agriculture land was situated on sandy hills on south facing slopes exposed to the lake. This was because those sites warmed and drained faster allowing for a longer growing season. These sites were planted to perennial fruit; apple, raspberry, blueberry etc. as they afforded a superior microclimate: frost protection and cool summers. Today, with climate change, those spots are high and dry. We chose our land because it is low in the landscape with a subsoil of clay. The Raspberry river as well as some of her tributaries flow through our land giving our land tremendous topological diversity on a human scale (this is also the reason that it sold for so low a price; conventional farming, logging or development would have proved too challenging). A large portion of our land was in intermediate succession with thickets of alder, fir, spruce, and poplar, thanks to a second disturbance (after the initial cutover of the entire county and subsequent fires, the largest town ‘Ashland’ bears witness to this in its name) of green bean farming in the 60’s. We found this land nearly perfect for transitioning to a diverse and fecund food forest, marsh and savannah system that could support large numbers of humans, all the rest of the critters of the land as well as provide those critical ecological services that Gaia depends on to live. We carved out of the existing thicket open areas for ponds, building sites, access, gardens, pasture and a nursery using the wood harvested for building, firewood, erosion control, and soil building. We are immediately blessed with these yields as well as a windbreak/shelterbelt, suntrap, and ecology of the remaining forest all around us. We harvest maple and yellow birch syrup, ramps and ostrich fern, fungus, and herbs as well as gain a sense of well being and belonging from our forests.
Good portions of our forests are climaxing popple (otherwise known as aspen, a short lived tree to 80’ casting a light shade) that afford a great microclimate to transition to a food forests. We plant stone pines (pines that produce pine nuts), walnuts of all sorts, chestnuts, oaks, pecans, hickories, and beech right into the forest; letting them grow in the understory, putting down a deep root system to associate with the already present fungal and bacterial partners, waiting for those popple to fall and then racing to the canopy. We transplant potted material from the nursery and walk around, in the fall, with a large pouch full of seeds and a spade planting chestnut seeds over many acres. These plantings are growing wonderfully and it’s only a matter of time before our boreal forests that are structurally coupled to an anachronistic climactic regime will be replaced with a diverse and fecund food forest that is better suited to the present and near future climate. It is amazing to me that more people have not created forests for their needs. I was visiting an old homsteader friend of mine and he pointed out two large blue spruce to the southeast of his annual garden. He was proud of them and his role in their life, as he should be. I couldn’t help but think how that annual garden that he worked so hard in every year could have largely been replaced by now by food forests, instead of being proud of a couple of spruce trees that are shading his garden and feeding some squirrels he could be proud of a food forest! Chestnuts are like potato or corn fields in the sky. Wonderful tasting and healthy nuts are ripened in squirrel proof burs only to open and offer us their divine sacrament when they are ripe. They flower late escaping spring frosts, and ripen early missing severe cold weather; they are extremely drought tolerant when established; can tolerate light shade, are not nutrient hungry, and are beautiful long-lived trees. We should revere them and spend most of our life ensuring their proliferation and health. Other trees that fill the ‘corn and potato’ portion on our plate, as they are staple crops providing us with storable carbohydrates, are other members of the fagacea family: oak and beech, as well as Xanthoceros sorbifolium otherwise known as popcorn shrub or yellowhorn, and mulberry. Filling the meat and butter portion of our plate are the protein and fat makers: walnuts, hickories, pecans, stone pines, and hazelnuts.63 Of course nitrogen fixing trees should be incorporated as well as patches of coppice or pollard (a coppice stool cut above animal browse) to supply fuel and structural diversity. For other bioregions the list is just as long and mouthwatering. Planted amongst the trees are diverse blend of fruits, nuts, medicine, fiber, fungi, and fodder: hawthorns, currents, gooseberries, juneberries, raspberries, blueberries, hazelnuts, cherries, apples….the list is long. There is no reason that we cannot create a culture that is structurally coupled to a forest, a culture that finds its sustenance and its meaning as a part of the forest continually co-creating itself.
Forests are by far the largest biome being co-created here at ‘the draw’. Another important biome are savannahs. At this point we have more animals then is sustainable. We buy in both hay and grain as our forests are young and not productive of the nutrients our system needs. We have dairy cows, two draft horses, small heritage pigs, Icelandic sheep, khaki Campbell ducks, chickens, cats and a dog. One of the reasons for so many animals is that we are creating large quantities of compost, over 50 yards a year, for our young gardens, pastures, and perennials. We can gain a yield of fiber, skins, meat and milk, learn from the animals, and jumpstart our ecology all at the same time. We are designing our ecosystems to include animals both domestic and wild. Ultimately we will have so much food being produced that we could not harvest it all without the help of our animal gleaners. We could either focus on hunting bear, deer, raccoon etc. or create a system where we have more of a designed disturbance with our domesticated pigs, goats, ducks, and chickens. Pigs are excellent harvesters of nut, fruit, and roots, and our pigs are not the typical American pigs. Most pigs require constant high quality feed to grow, and do they ever. Our pigs grow slower and can subsist on a very modest ration in the winter months when food is low, surviving off of their fat reserves and gleaning and growing fast in the summer and fall months putting on lots of fat for the winter. We look at our pigs as root cellars, allowing us to harvest and store more from the system. Our sheep will turn our coppice brush and other gleanings into nourishing milk and meat. We have designed some of our closer perennial polycultures with poultry in mind allowing them to forage for most of their protein needs only being supplemented with carbohydrates (now grain, in the future nuts) at night to get them in their coop and protected. Our aquaculture system is designed both for protein and carbohydrate rich plants like lotus, wapato, wild rice, and cattails and supports a number of ducks. The ducks forage for all of their own protein and are only supplemented with carbohydrates at night to get them in the coop. Our pastures are designed with pollards in them to fix nitrogen and lightly shade the grass as well as providing fuel and fodder. They are also lined with hedges as a barrier to the animals and at the same time providing us with fodder, food, and fuel. As the food forests expand and mature they will produce far more food then we could possibly harvest even with our animal gleaners. I hope that the ‘horizon’ culture here at the draw is able to transition from husbandry to hunting as the ‘wild’ ecosystems become more fecund.
A plant nursery is essential to anyone wishing to create a permaculture. When one first establishes a food forest it becomes apparent that large numbers of plants are necessary. Propagating plants is enjoyable and brings us an income as our nursery is for sale and open to the public even though its primary purpose is to produce healthy plants for our systems. We plant thousands a year and also give plants to our neighbors so as to broaden our influence. We focus on root growth to create strong plants, we do not use any chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. We weed the pots 2-3 times a month, sheet mulch the paths once a year, use coconut coir (a byproduct of the coconut industry), native topsoil from our building sites and, greensand, soft rock phosphate and kelp as our potting medium. We don’t use any nitrogen the first year to encourage root growth instead of rank top growth. The coir holds water, is a rooting hormone and is transformed over the course of a year into worm castings as the worms eat it adding essential nutrients for the plant, the perfect time release fertilizer! We also inoculate all our plants with mycelial spores and bacteria; pulling a plant up and looking at the roots one can see the mycelial filaments surrounding the root hairs. When the biochar operations are up and running we will add inoculated biochar to the mix. Our plants are healthy and robust.
Water is essential to any system and one that we have spent a lot of time on here at ‘the draw’. All of the water that falls on our zone 1, 2 and 3 either enters a series of ponds, an infiltration basin or a swale. All of our ravines have been stuffed with brush and the water that does run off the site in large events does so much more slowly, with most sediment dropped out. The prime ethical imperative is to slow, spread and sink water on your site and the water that does leave your site should be cleaner and more biologically active than the water that enters your site. Our clay subsoil allows us to easily establish ponds and we have five of them all in series. These ponds serve as a diverse ecology with many species of dragon flies, frogs, turtles, birds, and bats that forage in our polycultures and gardens acting as pest controllers. Many people were concerned that the digging of ponds would create a mosquito nightmare but the opposite has happened as our mosquito numbers have plummeted due to the introduction of habitat for mosquito eaters. These ecological benefits are significant; last spring we had an epidemic of army worms in our gardens that we were concerned about, and we were not alone as all of our neighbors also had similar problems due to the warm wet spring. Everyone we spoke with sprayed bt, an organic poison on their gardens to get rid of the problem. We waited and were rewarded as frogs, the ducks and other army worm predators invaded the gardens en mass solving our problem. All of our annual gardens have as at least one edge a pond. The ponds also are prime habitat for significant water food plants like water lotus, wapato or duck potato, wild rice, and cattails. Marshes are the most diverse and productive of fresh water based systems and our ponds were designed as multiple level shallow marshes. Our first pond in series, higher in the landscape, is deeper and is used for swimming as well. We have plans to build a ring dam above grade on the highest part of our land so that we can, solar direct, pump water into it in the spring, as all ponds are overflowing, to give us gravity feed water all year long. As was mentioned earlier our ducks forage on the ponds harvesting all of their protein needs and providing us with eggs, meat, and down. Ponds also make excellent social/psychological edge creating a rich tapestry of ecotypes to nurture the soul. We use composting toilets so there is no black water. Our gray water from the sink is run into our greenhouse where there is a plant filtration system. The gray water goes through several baffled chambers of rock with water plants growing in them cleaning the water. When the water is clean it goes into the last chamber and from there is used to water our greenhouse and other plants, as it is nutrient and oxygen rich (thanks to our oxygenator). We shower outside in the summer, the water being heated by solar thermal panels. In the winter we bathe Japanese style in the greenhouse, washing ourselves before entering a fresh water wood hot tub that is heated by wood.
There is no template to creating an ecological lifestyle or culture. Ethically there is a lot of gray area. The most important thing is that we continually challenge ourselves and try. One thing that helps me with some of the gray area is understanding that everything has a story. Some people call it embodied energy but I like to think of it as a story. When we see a banana or a piece of plastic, anything ,we should see its whole life history, past present and future, and as nothing exists in isolation we should examine the story of what helped create that banana or plastic. I live on the south shore of Lake Superior yet I can easily obtain tropical fruit in quantity year round for next to nothing. We take this for granted and if you asked any five year old about her banana they would probably describe its taste, texture and aroma not its story. What we need to be teaching our kids and ourselves is the story so that we can be ethical people. We shouldn’t just see a tasty fruit we should see, hear, smell and feel tropical forests being beaten and raped, vast monocultures sprayed with the most toxic chemicals killing everything, poor mothers, fathers and children being poisoned and humiliated in subservient vastly underpaid positions; petroleum mined from all corners of Gaia opening up Pandora’s box ushering in a new hothouse state. Just about the entire infrastructure of the suicide culture is necessary for you to have a banana even a ‘fair trade organic’ one. A banana shouldn’t even be a question in our minds. Be thoughtful and put away fruit in the summer and fall, plant food forests; there are plenty of mouthwatering tasties here; you can’t grow a blueberry in Jamaica. Every time I see plastic I see a whale filling its mouth with water expecting a meal of plankton and algae but instead primarily getting tiny beads of plastic. All plastic either ends up in the atmosphere (burned) or in the ocean where a tremendous volume of it finds its way (thanks to ocean circulation) to a large circular current in the south pacific that used to be home to huge blooms of algae where many a whale would feed. Every time I see gas or oil I see war and desertification. Every time I see light bulbs I see beautiful forests and wetlands destroyed and poisoned for copper mines. Not many people seem to want a mine in their back yard but very few are willing to live without the products that mining companies provide. The surest way to destroy a mining company and make certain there will never be a large open pit mine again is to stop using their products. To truly live by our ethic of Earth care will take a generation or so if we are diligent and start now. This is were transition ethics comes in, we can’t do everything now, but we can do so much more then the green consumer culture leads us to believe. We here at ‘the draw’ believe that most of our agricultural energy should be going into the cocreation of ecosystems. Trees take a little while before they start producing plentifully. So we buy in grain instead of using energy to create it here. We bring in concrete for foundations instead of taking energy and time to build with rammed earth tires. We use solar panels and batteries to power a well primarily so we can produce a lot of perennials for our nursery and growing food forests. Hopefully in a generation (20-30 years) or so all of this will be unnecessary as we will have cocreated diverse and fecund ecosystems that will enrich us and enliven us. So then we use energy from the suicide culture to establish biological systems at a relatively fast pace. Everything has a story and not all of them are bad, think of the story of chestnuts grown and harvested by your family, apples gathered and pressed on a chilly fall day, green grass hay harvested in the heat of summer fed to your horse to take you to your favorite fishing hole in winter. To have wholesome lives and wholesome communities we need to make ethically informed decisions, we shouldn’t make decisions based on convenience or cheep taste we need to make decisions based on our ethic of Earth care. I have made the decision that I will transport myself by walking or using a horse, that I will only use a car if my family or myself need medical help. This might seem like I am giving something up, that I am sacrificing for my ethics, but I see it as detoxing from a suicide path that confuses my sense of self and place. What it means to be human has expanded for me in my saturation in place not contracted.
Masanobu Fukuoka says in ‘Sowing Seeds in the Desert’ that his goal is to live a “natural lifestyle” not to farm. Growing food is a natural and inevitable part of a natural lifestyle, so is harvesting medicine, fuel, and fiber. We here at the draw engage in agriculture, building, raising kids etc. because it is part of what it means to be human. Some people might be turned off by our lifestyle calling it simple or plain or boring. I couldn’t disagree more; our lifestyle is incredibly fulfilling and wholesome. Our work is very diverse, sometimes physically demanding and sometimes mentally demanding but no matter what we do we are working to co-create our life.
Postmodern man has lost his soul. Cultural relativism is fashionable and nihilistic tendencies common. We are disassociated from the land and from each other. The only thing we depend on is the system that is destroying the planet. God is dead, the universe is a meaningless, random, dead machine.
We see what we are looking for. If we see a mountain as a dead hunk of rock with valuable resources to extract we will destroy the mountain. If we see the mountain as alive and sustaining us we will participate in a meaningful cocreation of a healthy mountain. Someone who does not believe in miracles will never witness one, let alone manifest one. I have tried to sketch out a story that if embodied would create a regenerative culture. What I want to sketch here is a specific spiritual framework. I am adding this to the end of the treatise to present one possible story that works for me. I feel that countless stories, if embodied, would create a regenerative culture. I also feel that we need to pick one belief and go with it knowing full well that it will grow and evolve with time. Anthropologists can hop about the planet living with and studying different cultures to get a feel for their epistemology. This knowledge is wonderful and has opened our eyes to the narrowness of our cultural conditioning, but in our broad perspective we have lost meaning, everything is relative. We are in a unique position with this broad perspective of different cultures coupled with a scientific narrative to design an epistemology that includes, MUST include, a spiritual underpinning. Again we must live by and embody a specific story to fully immerse ourselves in our humanity and be saturated with meaning.
I have done my best in previous sections to maintain logical coherence; to be reasonable. I felt as though that was important for the topics at hand but spirituality is not reasonable. I believe that reason and logic are like a game we humans have invented to understand the world and the world will be found to be reasonable and logical but it is not the only way to know the world. In fact if the universe were found to be unreasonable that would say more about the inadequacy of our reason than anything else. So then here is a sketch of a spiritual framework.
Everything in the universe, for the sake of discussion, I shall call the ‘twoness’ (good/evil, hot/cold, alive/dead etc). God or as I prefer to call it ‘The Great Spirit’ I shall call the ‘oneness’. The oneness brought forth the twoness with intent. The meaning of life is the experience of life. In other words the oneness brought forth the twoness to experience the twoness. The experience of the oneness is pure love, no time, no space, no individual identity. Each twoness is born from the oneness and always connected to, made up by the oneness. Imagine the oneness being the ocean and each individual wave born from the ocean is an individual twoness. Each individual twoness has the potential by its very nature to experience the oneness and through the oneness experience other twonesses. It is through the depth of the twoness we must go to experience the oneness. In other words we do not try to transcend our bodies or this earth to escape but rather we fully experience our bodies and this earth and find immanent in ourselves the oneness. But we don’t want to be like a kid impatiently waiting for Christmas (the experience of the oneness) and not ethically enjoying the twoness. After all the meaning of life is the experience of life. Escaping from suffering is good and escaping from the narrow confines of a self-important ego is good but we shouldn’t wish to escape our human condition altogether, that would be throwing the baby out with the bath water. We should seek to fulfill the potential of the human condition by being a selfless compassionate beneficial organism.
The Oneness (God, Great Spirit) is not an abstract entity but rather the very sea of being. Quantum physicists tell us of the zero point field. A primal field of energy that is the underlying matrix. It is called the zero point field because even at zero degrees Kelvin, absolute zero were everything is frozen, this field is still abuzz with energy. In one cup of ‘empty’ space there is enough energy in this field to boil all the oceans of the world. The quantum beings that make up this field (and everything else in the universe, you and me included) are continuously coming in and out of existence. They are moving from the realm of possible forms (the Oneness) to the realm of actual forms (our universe, the twoness). It is the act of observation or participation of/with the quantum beings that brings them forth into our universe (the twoness). There is no past or future, only the present which we are continuously bringing forth/creating. It is this field that is God, the undifferentiated oneness, the realm of all possible forms. All ‘solid’ matter is a manifestation of this field. All matter is continuously moving from the Oneness (God, the realm of all possible forms) to the twoness (our universe). We are continually and eternally created anew. It is our expectation of reality that brings forth reality. Our belief collapses and makes real one form, universe, reality out of an infinitude of possibilities. When we move through space (e.g. walking) it is not that the energy/matter that makes us up is moving but rather that the zero point field that collapsed into the form atmosphere (through our (the universes) collective dreaming/expectation) is now collapsing into the form you. Similarly as we move through time the zero point field in the space that embraces you collapses to your form. At every moment we are unconsciously wielding immense creative powers (through the cocreation of reality). Miraculously, harnessing those powers consciously is possible. Hold out your upturned hand in front of you. At this moment the zero point field is collapsing into atmosphere in the palm of your hand. Who’s to say that’s the only possibility?
Another way to think about the Great Spirit/God/Oneness is to call it the Mother Universe. Only by presupposing many daughter universes can we reconcile evolution and eternity. Evolution has an arrow of time in which systems evolve from simple to complex64, eternity is timeless. Change happens and is built upon. Lower order domain emergent phenomenon (e.g. hydrogen and oxygen) interact bringing about the emergence of outer order domains (molecules, in this case water). The mother universe is eternal and births many daughter universes (our universe being one of them) that has a beginning and an end. Each daughter universe is unique and is birthed with a specific parameter space. The trajectory of the universe is constrained and canalized by the parameter space. The smaller the parameter space the larger the free will. Basic electromagnetic, nuclear, and gravitational properties would be some of the components of our universes parameter space. After the parameter space is set the universe is born and set free. The trajectory of each daughter universes creative dance is constrained and canalized initially by the parameter space and subsequently by its historically unique and contingent development.65
Goals and ethics do not exist in the domain of the oneness. But they do exist in the domain of specific twonesses, humanity being an example. Because ethics and goals exist in humans they have meaning and relevance for the whole universe through the human component. The great spirit (the oneness) is like a light hearted jokester, good is no better then evil. We can learn from the Great Spirit and lighten up but to be fully human is to be ethical. Ethics include: do unto others as you want to be done onto you, and also any action is good if it enhances resilience, diversity and fecundity. If we remember from earlier the basic pattern of the universe: individual autonomy enmeshed in a functionally interdependent web that is itself an individually autonomous being (i.e. cell/tree/forest) to be ethical our actions must enhance that outer domain fractal. For example wolf predation on deer is ethical because it keeps the deer herd healthy and it protects the forest.
Everything is alive with awareness. Everything is watching us and aware of us. These other awarenesses, whether a rock or a tree, no matter how different they are than ours (and they are quite different) can be communicated with and experienced. On Gaia all individuals have a function in the Gaian body. Countless stories could be created using ecology as a model to help us understand roles played by our fellows. I will give one example. Gaia gave all beings a role to play. To the snakes she gave the roll of protector of the forest and grass. The snakes were charged with the responsibility of keeping the small herbivore population down to help keep vegetative growth and reproduction optimum. The snakes flourished in their role happily devouring small herbivores. But then a newcomer arrived who was too strong and fast for the snakes; rabbits. The rabbits laughed in the face of the snakes and eagerly multiplied and devoured young sapling cambium to such an extent that forest regeneration was compromised. The snakes were desperate, they couldn’t fulfill their role. They decided to implore upon Gaia for help. They undertook an arduous journey to the top of a divine mountain to commune with Gaia. “Gaia” they called out, “we have tried to fulfill our role as protectors of the forest but a new being has arrived that is too strong and fast for us and they are destroying the forest. We call upon you to help us fulfill our responsibility.” Gaia heard them and understood their plight. “From this day on” she said, “you will have more power; your bite will inflict a deadly poison. This power is no light responsibility, you must use it wisely. Before any bite you must hiss and rattle your tail to warn your victim to back down allowing them to subdue.” The snakes were humbled by Gaias generosity and agreed immediately to this stipulation. The snake’s descended back into to forest newly empowered to fulfill their responsibility. Upon their return a rabbit approached them laughing in their face as he began to girdle young saplings. A snake rose up and hissed rattling his tail. The rabbit laughed at the sight as the snake struck the rabbit with a single bite and the rabbit fell dead. All the other rabbits saw this and immediately realized the snake’s new power. The snakes now were able to fulfill their responsibility and the forest thrives. We can create an entire ecological literacy pantheon!
Rituals are important only if they are meaningful. We must believe in providence to believe in rituals. We must believe that it really matters to the wind or rain or forest if we perform these rituals or not. We must kill what we love to live (whether a carrot, tree or sheep) thus rituals that give back to the beings we kill and to the source of all life are vitally important for our emotional well being and feelings of fidelity towards our fellow beings and also because we believe it means something to Gaia. We must live with honor and integrity, crying forth for a vision until we receive. Rituals, songs and prayers are given to us from Gaia (or other outer order domains) through vision to be shared with the community and all of creation.
The Great Spirit brought forth the universe in all its glory and agony simply to experience itself. All of creation is alive and aware. Humans as a part of creation can communicate with all of creation. Rather than transcending our condition to experience God we fill ourselves with this rare treat-humanness and in the totality of our being, in our fullness, we find grace.
Change Your Life 101
Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda’s sorcerer master/teacher66, discloses to his apprentice that he has been giving him chores, problems to solve etc. as a way to keep his mind occupied while he teaches his body or rather allows his body to remember what it means to be human and a sorcerer. One way to transform your lifestyle and epistemology is to allow your body time and space to remember what it means to be human. We need to peel away layer after layer of noise in our head. We must destroy our televisions, computers, gizmos, and gadgets, amputate that cell phone, and stop picking up a book or turning on music every time there is a moment’s pause in life. We must GO OUTSIDE and spend time in Gaia experiencing her, being her. For people not accustomed to quiet, to peace, to ‘doing nothing’, there can be considerable pain and purging. Expect your head to fill with noise so intense it might drive you crazy. It might take years of living in Gaia, working, sleeping, and playing out in her with no distractions for the noise to cease. What replaces it is a quiet and a calm that is before words, you belong to the landscape, are a part of the landscape, and the very quality of the air changes. John Seed, an Australian rainforest activist, describes a meditation he teaches to help people transition to an indigenous worldview:
“We have a practice where we approach a leaf as though approaching our revered Zen Master. We breathe to this leaf the oxidized carbon of our body. We do so with the gratitude and the generosity that is the signature, the clue to the nature of which we are a fragment. As we add consciousness to the ancient processes of sharing respiration, we savor the leaf in our imagination. Now we must notice and then lay aside our prejudice that we are the only one capable of consciousness in this transaction, this holy communion that accompanies our every breath. We consciously nourish a leaf and invite the leaf to nourish us not just with the oxygen it creates, but with further communications. The most “primitive” peoples naturally do this. They live deeply embedded in their “environment” and all practice ceremonies and rituals that affirm and nourish this interconnectedness, this interbeing of the human tribe with the rest of the Earth family.”
What it means to be human is so much more than what we were taught. Think of the possibilities of a human with an empty mind embodied in Gaia. We are only just beginning. There is a story from an psychologist in the middle of the 20th century that will stick with me forever.67 He was living with a group of indigenous people in the mountains of Malaysia. He was planning a trip to the ocean and wanted to bring one of the people as none of them had ever seen the ocean. An elder was selected and accompanied him. When they arrived at the ocean the elder walked up to the ocean sitting next to her. He did not move for the duration of their stay. Upon returning to the tribe the elder gathered everyone to tell them what he learned. Now this man had never been to the ocean before, never read any books about the ocean (he was illiterate) or talked to anyone about the ocean yet he told his people that the ocean (great water is what he called it) encircles the globe and that the land floats on top of it. That there is far more water then land, that it is salty (he never touched the water), that there are many great rivers in the ocean as well as mountains and that animals live in the water (not just fish) that are far larger then elephants. How did he know all that? When asked he said that he knew it with his heart. He experienced/sensed all of it with his heart! This is exactly what Stephen Harrod Buhner talks about in ‘The Secret Teachings of Plants’. The heart is a neural center (the solar plexus is another) that can sense and perceive, and our culture does not even know they exist yet alone know how to use them. Well the ancient ones did and we are their heirs and we have it within us! Stephen recommends several techniques to develop these neural centers and thus a different way of perceiving and knowing. I will leave you to read his work for the details but in short stop your internal dialogue by sensing, the sensing turns into feeling which can lead to a whole new world, think asking plants how they can help you and getting a response! Nearly every indigenous culture that has been asked ‘how did you find out that plant was medicinal?’ has responded by saying that the plant told them. Well western trained anthropologists scoffed at that and tell their audiences that they employed trial and error. Many, many medicinal plants (and food plants) used by indigenous peoples required several specific steps before they could be ingested or they would kill you! What’s more likely, that every indigenous culture on the planet is delusional or liars or a tiny minority of industrialized creatures can’t comprehend their own potential?
We may have forgotten a lot as a culture/species but all of it is still within us. We have much to learn and Gaia has much to teach us and loves us dearly. I believe that if we are sincere we can pray to Gaia to help us and she will! We must clear our mind and allow our body to remember its embeddedness in Gaia so that we can create a lifeway and culture that she can be proud of. I offer the following meditations in hopes that they allow us to more fully experience our embeddedness in Gaia.
Lay down, preferably naked, on the Earth. Close your eyes and visualize your dead body being buried. Feel the earth being placed over you, what does it feel like, what does it smell like, is it cold and oppressive or disgusting or is it warm and nurturing, a sort of rebirth into the great body of Gaia? Now litteraly dig a hole and lie in it naked allowing Gaia to saturate you with here energy. Another good practice that comes from Sun Bear68 is to dig a hole and lie down on your stomach with your head over the hole and yell out all of your anger, frustration est. When you are done cover up the hole.
The following meditation is taken from Stephen Hardings ‘Animate Earth’.
Lie down on your back on the ground.69 Take a few deep breaths and relax, now feel the weight of your body on the Earth as the force of gravity holds you down. Experience gravity as the love that the Earth feels for the very matter that makes up your body, a love that holds you safe and prevents you from floating off into outerspace. Open your eyes and look out into the vast depths of the universe whilst you sense the great bulk of our mother planet at you back. Feel her clasping you to her huge body as she dangles you upside down over the vast cosmos that stretches out below you. What does is feel like to be held upside down in this way-to feel the depths of space beyond you and the firm, almost glue like support of the Earth behind you? Now sense how the Earth curves away beneath your back in all directions. Feel her great continents, her mountain ranges, her oceans, her domains of ice and snow at the poles and her great cloaks of vegetation stretching out from where you are in the great round immensity of her unbelievably diverse body. Sense her whirling air and her tumbling clouds spinning around her dappled surface. Breathe in the living immensity of our animate Earth. When you are ready, get up, breathe deeply, profoundly aware now of the living quality of our planet home.
Our culture is powerful. It has a way of funneling diverse emotions, ideas and intentions into its own Earth eating system. Many a ‘concerned citizen’ has been placated by the consumer culture into continued consumption. A distinction can be drawn between deep green and bright green. Bright green environmentalism is ubiquitous amongst the green beans. It encourages a lifestyle consistent with the American story; a lifestyle that uses ‘green’ products, eats ‘organic’ food perhaps growing some of their own, encourages one to ride their bike to work, expounds on the virtue of recycling, hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, low flush toilets, energy efficient refrigerators…. Essentially ‘don’t worry so much and just buy this and this and this, donate to your favorite charity and get politically active and everything will be all right. The bright green route doesn’t work because the very infrastructure of our culture is the problem. Take recycling, we are told to do our part and recycle. What they don’t tell you is that all recycling operations take a tremendous amount of energy and most produce a tremendous amount of toxic waste. For example, all aluminum is recycled in China, so all of it is first shipped there, the work is done by severely underpaid workers including children, it is very energy intensive taking more energy than producing raw aluminum, and produces serious toxins that poison Gaia and her people. Fancy refrigerators still take more energy than a root cellar and most still hold food that travels hundreds of miles. Compact fluorescents contain mercury and rely on an infrastructure that uses copper (mainly in wires), an element that is removed from Gaia at a grave cost. Hybrid cars contain a litany of heavy metals; rely on an infrastructure (roads) that gobbles up the lions share of the GDP in their creation and maintenance, and cement is the most polluting product our culture makes as the lime must be heated to very high temperatures (many a forest have been felled to make cement). And low flush toilets! What caring person wants to shit in water? When we shit in water we turn two resources into one poison. Poo plus carbon (sawdust, straw, anything organic and brown) equals compost (if you’re scared of it put it on fruit trees or your coppice stand). Most caring people take the bright green route because the deep green route forces us to change our lifeway and culture; it forces us to be courageous. With the deep green route we realize that any option given to us within the epistemology and infrastructure of the suicide culture is a fatal option. James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis, proposes that we place nuclear waste in Gaias last remaining ecosystems, and especially the tropical rain forest. Why? Because humans are scared of nuclear waste and stay away. The forests around Chernobyl are the most diverse and fecund forests in Europe even though the average lifespan of the organisms are about 75% of what they would be without the radiation. Organisms dying of cancer, cutting their life short by 25% is a hell of a lot better then total ecosystem annihilation, the ‘other’ alternative if the suicide culture keeps trucking. The worst-case scenario is business as usual. The worst thing possible for you, Gaia, and our children is that you keep living an American lifestyle. We have options that are not presented to us from the American story. We don’t choose democrat or republican, we choose anarchy. We don’t choose capitalism or fascism or communism we choose the gift economy. We don’t choose organic food or nonorganic food, vegan, vegetarian or omnivore we choose cocreator of diverse and fecund ecosystems. We don’t choose hybrid car or car pool we choose horse or walking or bikes. The options presented to us from the suicide culture are suicide. We must have the courage to come together and create a life together that Gaia would be proud of. In our last guided meditation I want us to experience what these two different ‘solutions’ offer us.
Imagine a world where 90% of Americans drive hybrid cars, where most universities use recycled paper, where alternative energy like wind and solar are ubiquitous. Were the vast infrastructure of the dominant culture is still necessary and maintained eating more and more of Gaia’s body. Now imagine a world where barren eroded hillsides have been transformed into diverse and fecund food forests, gardens with topsoil so deep you can stick your arm in up to your shoulder, rivers that ran dry now run all year teeming with fish, birds, amphibians; springs popping up all over the place, human communities with a new way of knowing cocreating ecosystems and depending on them. Gaias ecosystems, her organs, spreading around the globe engulfing terrestrial and oceanic deserts. The choice is yours, not some politicians. Don’t give away your power! MAKE IT NOW.
This treatise is intended to facilitate a transition from a suicidal epistemology, or way of knowing, to an ecological epistemology, to transition a parasitic lifeway to a lifeway of a beneficial organism, and finally to help transition from a degenerative culture to a regenerative culture. This treatise is intended to crystallize an already saturated solution. Arguments are not drawn out with detailed care but rather are presented to the reader in an organized fashion to introduce concepts and paint a picture of a regenerative way of knowing, lifeway and culture. Copious footnotes provide the reader with sources of information to draw out those details. ↩
Aka mother earth, more on Gaia later. ↩
We will explore this in more detail later. ↩
Please see Noam Chomsky ‘The Manufacture of Consent’. And Howard Zinn ‘The Peoples History of the United States.’ ↩
Green bean is a term applied to people who care about ‘environmentalism’ est. but through their lifestyle act as cocreators of the system they despise. A vegetarian driving a hybrid car with a license plate that says ‘Earth 1’ is a fair example of a green bean but they come in all shapes and sizes. ↩
More on anarchy later, for now lets just say that it doesn’t mean violence it means no impositional authority. ↩
Please see the world watch institute and James Lovelock ‘The Vanishing Face of Gaia’ ↩
please see Thomas Khun, ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ ↩
induction, reasoning from the particular to the general (Jim and Sally are both teachers and they are both smart therefore all teachers are smart), deduction-reasoning from the general to the particular (all teachers are smart therefore teacher Jim is smart), adduction-bringing together (pattern recognition). ↩
Please see Stephen Harrod Buhner, ‘The Secret Teachings of Plants’. With the subtitle, ‘The intelligence of the heart in the direct perception of nature.’ He presents exercises to help train our heart as an organ of perception. ↩
The following is a very quick introduction to systems. I want to introduce some concepts so that we can apply them later. Please see Donnella Meadow, ‘Thinking in Systems’. ↩
Please see Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, ‘The Tree of Knowledge’. ↩
Please see James Lovelock, ‘The Ages of Gaia.’ ↩
Phylogeny: the history of the development of a species or group of related organisms. ↩
Please see; Brian Goodwin ‘How the Leopard Changed its Spots’, Stuart Kauffman ‘Thinking About Biology’, Ilya Prigogine ‘Order Out of Chaos’, and Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana ‘The Tree of Knowledge’. ↩
Stephen Harding, ‘Animate Earth’. ↩
Please see section on ‘climate change’ ↩
Please see section on ‘Gaia’ ↩
Please see section ‘a fresh look at evolution and development’. ↩
Eugene Odum, Fundamentals of Ecology ↩
Bill Mollison co originator of the permaculture concept. One of his principles is ‘the problem is the solution.’ ↩
the next geological epoch initiated by modern human culture. ↩
Gross domestic product. ↩
Please see Tim Flannery ‘Eternal Frontier’ and David Theodoropoulos ‘Critique of a Pseudoscience’. ↩
Our star is a typical star that undergoes a pretty well understood evolution. What is important from a geophysiological perspective is that the amount of heat/energy that the Earth is receiving from the sun is increasing. The sun is 25% hotter then when life started 3.9 billion years ago. Earths geophysiological system has maintained surface temperatures within bounds suitable to life. The ice ages can be seen as a planetary cooling mechanism and the interglaciers as a failure of that mechanism. Most people look at ice ages as a low productivity portion of the Earths history. I believe that the glacial periods would be just the opposite. Cold nutrient/oxygen rich oceans would provide the ideal conditions for ocean life and the amount of land lost to glaciers would be gained by lower ocean levels-mainly between SE Asia and Australia. Long before the sun expands to encompass the Earth (about 5 billion years) we will be receiving too much heat to maintain surface temperature conducive to life as it has existed on this planet. In fact in 100 million years the sun will be so hot that a 0% carbon dioxide atmosphere will be necessary to keep thermal homeostasis. Obviously this is not possible with life as it exists now. This means that if Gaia were to live to 100 years she would be 97 and a half years old now. Gaia is a tough old girl but how she will react to our great fossil fuel party is hard to know. You see by our adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere we are exasperating an already overwhelming problem of excess heat. ↩
Masanobu Fukuoka echoes this in his last book ‘Sowing Seeds in the Desert’. He plainly states that we must spread seeds of opportunistic and expansive plants on wounded areas of Gaia to set the initial conditions and let Gaia sort it out. ↩
It is interesting to note the parallels between Smiths economic invisible hand and Darwin’s ecological one. Smith, a Scot, preceded Darwin, an Englishman, and influenced him greatly. Darwin had to confront a problem with his survival of the fittest. How could the harmony and intricacy of the ecosystems we see about us be explained by a nature ‘red in tooth and claw’? Darwin’s ‘natural selection’ is Smiths ‘invisible hand’. ↩
Richard Heinberg, ‘the end of growth’. ↩
See Richard Heinberg, ‘Peak Everything’. And Christopher O. Clugston, ‘Scarcity’. ↩
Primary productivity is the amount of energy available for biological growth and transformation. It is the amount of energy, sugar, produced by plants. ↩
One I find as helpful is Stephen Harrod Bruhner’s ‘The Lost Language of Plants.’ ↩
The Toltecs call it the dream of the planet not story. ↩
When we see ourselves as separate from others we can pity them. That is we can shake our heads and feel bad for them not understanding. When we see ourselves as made of the same pattern and fabric as others we can have compassion for them. That is we can say, “I too have had feelings of anger, hate and rage and am thankful I didn’t act on them as you did.” You see all possibilities embedded within you. ↩
The first law of thermodynamics states that the energy in the universe is constant-it can change forms but it cannot be created or destroyed. The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of the universe is increasing. Entropy is defined as disorder. This has led physicists to posit that the universe will die a cold thermodynamic death-as time passes disorder is increasing and at some point all of the energy in the universe will be evenly distributed across space. This is in stark contrast to what has happened over the 15 billion years of the universes life as we find the continued creation of elegant and novel forms. ↩
See Illya Prigogine, ‘Order Out of Chaos’, and ‘The End of Certainty’. ↩
Please see, ‘a fresh look at evolution and development’ in this paper. ↩
Please see James Lovelock; ‘The Ages of Gaia’, Tyler Volk, ‘Gaia’s Body’ and Stephen Harding ‘Animate Earth’. ↩
Geophysiology refers to Gaias self regulating system. Students of geophysiology study how the Earth system has maintained relative homeostasis in the face of changing external conditions. ↩
Interestingly it seems that the higher the energy gradient the more diversity we find. In the case of the tropical forests we find, by far, the highest biological diversity and the highest cloud diversity. There are more types of clouds in the tropical zone then in the temperate or arctic zones. ↩
Please see, The Lost Language of Plants by Stephen Harrod Buhner. ↩
Please see The Secrete Life of Plants and Jim Robbins, The Man Who Planted Trees. ↩
Plants could not possibly colonize land by themselves. It took the emergence of fungi to initiate a three part relationship between fungi (mineral and water gatherer extraordinaire), nitrogen fixing bacteria and plants that was strong enough to colonize land. ↩
See note above on “the first law of thermodynamics”. ↩
Please see Howard Morowitz, ‘Energy Flow in Biology and Beginnings of Cellular Life’. ↩
When rubisco was first synthesized the atmosphere was much different than today, namely there was no free oxygen. Rubisco is a giant molecule full of folds and catalyzing sights, it is thousands of times bigger than hydrogen. Rubisco catalyzes the combining of carbon dioxide and water to form sugars, but also, just by its structure, catalyzes reactions with oxygen. In an atmosphere with less carbon dioxide and more oxygen the rubisco becomes much less efficient (there was no selection pressure on rubisco in the beginning because there was no free oxygen to make it less efficient). Today with low carbon dioxide levels and high (compared to when life started) oxygen levels rubisco and thus all photosynthesis is only about 40% efficient. Several million years ago plants from several families of plants transitioned from what is called C3 photosynthesis to C4 photosynthesis. In the reaction chambers where rubisco is catalyzing sugar production, C4 plants import carbon in to raise its levels to make rubisco more efficient (this pumping in of carbon takes energy but less than is gained by the increased efficiency of rubisco). One can only hope that a similar coevolutionary phenomenon will cascade through the realm of Gaian photosynthesizers making rubisco even more efficient so Gaia can draw down carbon out of the atmosphere at exponential rates. Just visualize trees growing 10 feet a year in the temperate world and 30 feet a year in the tropics. I can almost hear Gaias bedrock being churned up by plant roots and mycelial hyphea. ↩
Since oxygens initial series of ascensions into the atmosphere, life has maintained its concentration at a very stable level, approximately 21%. Much less than this and not even the driest tinder would burn (so no respiration would be possible), and at a much greater concentration even the most saturated organic matter would burn uncontrollably. ↩
Please see Lynn Margulis, ‘Symbiotic Planet’, ‘Microcosmos’ and ‘Acquiring genomes’. ↩
See David Holmgren, Permaculture, Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. ↩
Bill Mollison, ‘Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual’ ↩
See section, ‘oil spills as solutions’ ↩
A lot of fossil fuels were also produced between 280 and 180 million years ago when plants rooted themselves on Gaia inventing lignin, a structural lattice made of carbon that allowed for them to reach toward the sky. It took fungi about 100 million years to invent enzymes that were able to break down lignin in that interval a lot of carbon was sequestered producing oil and coal. This period is known as the carboniferous period. ↩
The formation of ocean ice is the mechanism of oxygen rich water falling to the bottom of the ocean. As ice is formed the surrounding water becomes more dense (more salty) because the salt does not become part of the ice crystal. This dense supercold oxygen rich water falls to the bottom of the ocean forming an oxic ocean bottom. ↩
‘A Pattern Language’ by Christopher Alexander and company is a great resource for this. ↩
a good design should achieve is taken from; Bill Mollison; ‘A Designers Manual’ ↩
Here are some good resources for creating fecund ecosystems; Martin Crawford, ‘Agroforestry news’ a quartly publication out of England, simply the best source for a lot of the details we need to create these systems. David Jacke, ‘Edible Forest Gardens.’ ↩
Please see M Cat Anderson, ‘Tending the Wild”. ↩
Please see Charles Mann, ‘1491’. ↩
Passanger pigeons were big meaty birds that were easy to catch and thus should have made a large contribution to these bone heaps if the birds were a prominent component of the ecosystem. ↩
Some of my favorites: Collin Turnbull, ‘The Forest People.’ Elizabeth Marshal Thomas, ‘The Harmless People.’ Helena Norberg-Hodge, ‘Ancient Futures.’ And Malcom Margolin, ‘The Ohlone Way.’ ↩
Please see Jeannette Armstrong in ‘Ecological Literacy’. ↩
Please see Sepp Holtzer. ‘Sepp Holtzers Permaculture’. A wonderful book despite the machine use. ↩
For more on biochar see Paul Taylor: ‘The Biochar Revolution’. ↩
Please see J. Russell Smith, ‘Tree Crops’. ↩
Simple systems persist through time even after the appearance of more complex systems. ↩
Is the parameter space for a daughter universe contingent on past daughter universes or is brought forth afresh by the mother universe? ↩
please see Carlos Castaneda, ‘Journey to Itchlan’ and ‘Tales of Power’. ↩
Robert Wolff, ‘Original Wisdon’ ↩
Sun Bear, ‘The Path of Power.’ ↩
Stephen Harding ‘Animate Earth’. ↩
Nathaniel Larson is a father, brother and husband at The Draw, a land-based community on the south shore of Lake Superior, where he does his best to live a life in service to Gaia.