Earth Day 2015: Creating Safe Spaces for Natural Life

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Words and pictures by Madronna Holden, copyright 2015

Not so very long ago in earth time, all places were sanctuaries in which individual lives and their kin tried out their relationships with one another–creating the wondrous diversity of natural life on earth.

Today we have protected wilderness areas from ourselves to provide such safe–and all too rare– places for life to play itself out.

In parallel with our own wilderness areas, the ancient peoples of many lands understood that certain places should belong to themselves rather than to humans–and thus they refrained from trespassing on particular powerful places.  In such places the land remembers itself without human presence.

These are places where the land is able to think for itself.

By contrast, most places on the land keep a memory of human presence. The early Euroamerican explorers who wrote about the abundance of the salmon here, for instance, were in fact describing the several thousand year old land-memory of the salmon-human partnership.

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Those who praised prairies overflowing with the blue-flowered camas were describing the land’s memory of the careful hands of the indigenous women who dug those bulbs to feed their people– and spread them at the same time.

Sadly if an explorer from another world ventured into industrial society today, there would not be so many lovely memories of humans for the land to tell.

Like many of my friends and my students, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the sheer insanity of those whose actions clearly undercut the survival of so many lives on earth. Those bent on profit for its own sake are like the man in ancient tales who saws off the limb he is sitting on. If we allow them to continue on in this way,  creating toxins and using up limited natural resources we need for survival, we will hit the wall when all there is left of us is the land’s memory– and what it has to overcome to re-establish itself as a sanctuary of life once more.

But the human story is more complicated than that as the land’s memory of us attests.

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In Eugene, we have managed to preserve invaluable wetlands and stream corridors in private-public partnerships.

My own neighborhood organization fought long and hard– over two decades– to make a park of the headwaters of the Amazon creek that flows through Eugene.   Within the city limits, we may walk in second growth forest, where the lungs of the earth are by turn breathing out and taking in the carbon that has disrupted the tender blanket of atmosphere nurturing human life in the last 10,000 years.

Here the land’s memory exists in the native species in the forest– and the human part of that both in that we have made this place safe for such natural life and in the old growth stumps telling how we cut all the old trees.  Now in the future, the land will be able to remember we gave it the freedom to express life as it can be here.

On these blooming spring days, the trails here are full of people of all ages.  Yesterday I was part of a bottleneck of five people trying to pass one another on that trail.  A young woman laughed at our bumbling crowd, and the insinuation that there might be too many of us, saying “We are all just loving this trail.”

This is one small place that can now hold for us the ancient library of natural knowledge we have barely begun to access in our own short time on earth as humans.  Further down the trail, I met two young men stopped to listen to a particular bird call. One spoke authoritatively to his friend about the places on the trail he had previously heard that call.

These are such simple things: Things I dream of in a future in which young men and women can feel the joy and attend to the knowledge of places where life is safe to be itself.  And they can join in this feeling of safety rather than a world scarred by climate change and toxins and extinctions.

This is not nature we have “saved”, this is the refuge we all need.

P1050367aOn this Earth Day 2015, we might well honor this need in ourselves for such sanctuaries of life. The ethical standard of “going on the side of life” becomes our own when we work to make any place safe for nature’s lives.

Imagine a bumblebee happily coming upon an evergreen huckleberry with its hundreds of blooms- or going dizzily, along with the butterflies and other bees, among the eclectic meadow flowers in your yard.

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In making a place for native species, we are honoring the land’s ancient memories and wisdom of the way natural life has come together over time.

In the wake of the 50,000 bumblebees dead from a pesticide application in a Wilsonville, Oregon parking lot, imagine being able to whisper to the bees who visit our yards, “You are safe. There are no poisons here.”

Imagine such corridors of safety everywhere,  along which more than human lives might migrate– and human children walk into their own future.  In which, as one of my neighbors phrased it, the plants grow in abundance, “happy to be here” along with other natural lives, including ourselves,

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In which we have the patience and humility to let nature design our fields and our yards, our gardens and our farms.  If we did that in California as a group of local women did in Bangladesh, we would not be hitting the wall with industrial farming’s overuse of water in the face of the current drought.  In Bangladesh, ecological farming methods recharged the water tables rather than drawing them down with the need to support plant varieties reliant on vast amounts of water and chemical fertilizers.

It is nature that designs all the places where life is happy to be– which is turn makes us happy to be here too. I am thinking of the story of an African-American woman who made a garden from a garbage-strewn vacant lot in New York City–and welcomed the young men of her community to share with her and to help her, thus planting seeds of heart as well as plants in their lives.

No matter what our personal spaces, we all have a natural place we can make into an essential place of refuge for life:  our own bodies.  Nature has designed those as well.

This Earth Day, we can listen to the wisdom that our bodies carry for us– no matter what our age or shape or personal history of accident or disease. And work to make our bodies and those of others safe.

We have uncounted challenges ahead as a species. But this is where our hope lies: as we make a safe place for life, life nourishes us in turn.

And thus we can each go on the side of life in our own way– accepting the wonder we are meant for.

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Enough Already! Time to Ban Roundup

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By Madronna Holden

Update 4.23.2015

Monsanto is currently being sued for false advertising for claiming that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is safe.

Protecting our Children’s Future

Yesterday a kind neighbor stopped by to praise my garden in this wonderful blooming time of year. We got on the topic of dandelions and she eagerly shared how her children blew out their puffy white seeds to wish on.

Wishing on dandelion seeds is a tradition around the world linked not only to the visual delight in seeing those seeds drift—but the fact that the dandelion root is medicinal, helping to clean toxins out of our bodies. We have got things backwards when we spray poisons on these plants.

Dandelions also provide essential forage for the bees that pollinate our crops—and greens in early spring.

Indeed, as I pondered the image of the children sending their innocent wishes out on dandelion seeds, I thought about the way that poisoning those seeds may be poisoning our children’s wishes for the future in more ways than one.

Liver and Kidney Damage and Cancer

With the recent World Health Organization declaration that glyphosate (Round Up’s main ingredient) is a probable carcinogen and the recent re-publication, after a second round of stringent peer review, of the Seralini study indicating that ingesting both Roundup and a variety of Roundup Ready seed lead to “very significant chronic kidney deficiencies” and liver damage, it is time to take this chemical off the market.

Notably, the mice in the Seralini study that ingested Roundup’s glyphosate not only died earlier than the control group, but at a two to threefold rate. This two year study replicated Monsanto’s 90 day study for licensing of glyphosate, and Seralini argues that a 90 day trial was simply not long enough for the effects of Roundup to show up—although even the Monsanto study shows indications of the damage to come, which Monsanto labeled “insignificant.”

Further, though Seralini’s study was not specifically geared to test for cancer, the number of tumors in the mice fed both the gmo corn and Roundup alerted the researchers to the need for further investigation on this score.

This kidney and liver damage in all the treated groups is implicated in the epidemic of deaths among agricultural workers in Central America and Asia who work in Roundup Ready fields. They are dying of dehydration from kidney failure—often in their twenties. Following these deaths, Sri Lanka briefly banned Roundup, though they rescinded that ban under pressure from herbicide manufacturers.

2-4 D – a central ingredient in the innocuous sounding Weed and Feed, has its own serious health repercussions—which motivated a doctors’ panel in Quebec to urge the local government to ban it, following its ban in a number of European countries.

The last thing the US needs is “Enlist” seed genetically engineered to be resistant to both Roundup and 2-4-D, leading to the inevitable higher level of both these herbicides in our food.

The Addictive Process

Though Monsanto denounces the studies cited by the WHO as “inconclusive”, it doesn’t argue with one of Roundup’s inevitable results—the development of herbicide-resistant weeds. Indeed, this resistance is Dow’s argument for the certification of its Enlist seed. This is good for Monsanto and Dow’s profits—and bad for feeding the world.

Notably, this is the same process that helped big tobacco addict younger and younger smokers while more data came in regarding the harms of tobacco—until the facts were finally indisputable.

In this meantime, the burden of proof of such dangers must be financed by the public—or enterprising scientists such as those on Seralini’s team– rather than those who profit by the manufacture and sale of these chemicals. Big tobacco is finally being held accountable for its health harms on the basis of its foreknowledge of tobacco’s addictive qualities.

We might well hold Monsanto and Dow to the same standards.

Farmers now reliant on Roundup face an expensive dilemma. They need more and more of the chemicals to accomplish the same result.

The only effective cure for dependence on these toxic chemicals is stopping their use.

Banning chemicals with known or suspected toxicity will cause the agricultural industry to get smarter as well as more efficient. A switch from such toxic chemical usage will not be easy—or instant– but this is the only approach that removes the farmer from the merry-go-round of expensive chemical addiction—and removes exposure to these toxins from our homes and families as well.

Some smart farmers have already seen the handwriting on the wall. They are using such things as crop rotation and mechanical weeding to wean themselves off herbicides. The words of one such farmer turning to organic agriculture in California’s Central Valley after his son contracted cancer are haunting, “What should I tell my son—that my profits were more important?”

Human Guinea Pigs

Since Ronald Reagan ordered the labs at the US Environmental Protection Agency dismantled, the EPA has had no ability to test any products it approves or to verify research industry submits.

Indeed, the EPA operates on the principle that unless a chemical is proven harmful, it should be allowed. This means the real test of such chemicals comes after their release—when their harms on humans and other lives shows up. Thus natural lives become guinea pigs.

And it takes often takes many decades for the results to come in—as in the case of DDT. The smarter and safer standards is that of the precautionary principle used by many developed countries, which states that something should be proved harmless before it is released into the environment.

Meanwhile, the very fact that the EPA exists lulls the US consumer into thinking that whatever is sold here has been tested safe, as evidenced by the overwhelming springtime displays of pesticides in local garden stores. Indeed, household use counts for substantial chemical usage in the US.

Whereas agricultural workers and licensed pesticide applicators must follow label instructions or be fined, home applicators have no such restrictions–unless your next door neighbor complains about drift and (in Oregon at least) is economically damaged by it.

Our laws don’t compensate for “chemical trespass”, but I would rather have someone walk through my yard than spray Roundup that drifts onto my yard. Roundup’s carrier chemical—which allows glyphosate to penetrate living tissue and is in some respects more dangerous than glyphosate itself—may remain invisible and active for 42 days before it even breaks down halfway.[i]

The Destruction of Beneficials

Board spectrum herbicides like Roundup destroy plants that are the food sources of beneficial insects. This exaggerates crop losses from insects—despite growing chemical usage Today US agriculture suffers more crop loss from pests (weeds and insects and disease) than it did before agricultural chemical usage began in earnest in the 1950s.

What can we do to protect our families’ health?

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We can refuse to buy Monsanto’s genetically engineered foods.

We can refuse to use Roundup or 2-4 D (or the Weed and Feed containing it) on our yards and home gardens.

We can support organic agriculture.

We can lobby for banning these dangerous chemicals– and certainly, for prohibiting their use on school grounds and parks where children play.

We can add our voices to those working to reform the US Toxics law, so that health and good science are not compromised by profit.

We can utilize the resources concerning alternatives to pesticide use offered by the Pesticide Action Network and the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides.

And about those weeds…

If we can’t tolerate certain weeds, here is advice from the Eugene Stormwater Department:

  1. Let sleeping seeds lie. Digging and cultivating brings weed seeds to the surface.
    2. Mulch. Don’t give weeds the chance to see light.
    3. Weed early and often. Young weeds pull easier than older ones.
    4. Off with their heads? If you can’t yank ’em out, then deadhead before they go to seed.
  2. Boil or broil. Heat kills weeds and seeds. Boiling water or a torch (carefully applied) blasts them in sidewalks and driveways.
  3. Space your plants closely. Planting tightly shades the soil between emerging weeds.

[i] J. Giesy, S. Dobson and K. Solomon, “Ecological Risk Assessment for Roundup Herbicide”, in Reviews of Envrionmental Contamination and Toxicology, ed. G. Ware, v. 167.

Misusing Darwin: How Misunderstanding “Survival of the Fittest” Makes us Unfit for Survival

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By Madronna Holden

Updated 4.26.2014

“Never use the words higher and lower”.

— Charles Darwin, notebooks

“Perhaps there is no coincidence that amoeba, insects, animals, the human culture and society, generally follow innate rules of cooperation. Darwin’s explanation of evolution as a struggle for existence needs to be tempered with an acknowledgment of the importance of cooperation in the evolution of complexity.”

–Thomas P. Zwaka, cellular biologist

“To decide that people are the highest, most evolved species… reflects more the strongman logic of human beings than the true state of nature.”

–Masanobu Fukuoka, Sowing Seeds in the Desert

“Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life; few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope by a limit imposed from without [by science misused].”
Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man

“Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.”

Charles Darwin The Descent of Man


Charles Darwin was a meticulous observer of  the natural world in his seminal Origin of the Species.  But he left a problematic legacy when he turned to the analysis of human society in his Descent of Man.  On the one hand, we see his emphasis on the importance of cooperation in the development of human societies in the quote above.  On the other hand, he violated his own scientific precepts, such as “never use the words higher or lower” in his analysis of particular societies as being “below” those of Europeans in development.

As Japanese “natural farmer” Masanobu Fukuoka, observed, an essential question in the hierarchical notion  “survival of the fittest” is who decides what is “higher and lower”– and by what criteria. Humans who decide they are the highest and best products of evolution use criteria like human intelligence to come to this conclusion.

But as Darwin himself noted, the bee would undoubtedly use a very different critierion.

Darwin also noted that cooperation is far more important than competition in the working of natural systems, whereas social Darwinismin the guise of Manifest Destiny, for instance, emphasizes competition and thus justifies conquest.

More troubling even than its sloppy science is how social Darwinism asserts that societies on the side of “progress” are  destined to overcome and replace others as a matter of natural (or divine) law. It also asserts that impoverished classes are responsible for their own problems.  In this theory, even the children of the poor become “less fit”– and thus their hunger or poor schooling can be ignored. This view contorts  the idea of natural selection for sake of what Val Plumwood termed “dominator” societies.

Indeed, it misuses the scientific understanding of natural evolution to refurbish a notion rooted in ancient colonial history-in Aristotle’s declaration that slaves are slaves by nature, just as masters are masters. And “civilizations” or “advanced” societies have the natural license to take over the lands of others and impose their way of life on them. Darwin himself is complicit in this misunderstanding, since his own social conclusions (as opposed to his natural science investigations) included the unsupported statement that “males are more evolutionarily advanced than females”.

Such hierarchical dualism–dividing the world into male and female, poor and rich, civilization and “savage” as the higher and lower Darwin cautions himself to avoid, describes much of the history of modern nation states. But it is not the narrative that describes natural selection.  Indeed, human societies that  behave in this fashion are comparatively  short lived.

The untold part of this story is the way in which the overrun and eliminate idea of “survival of the fittest” makes those who hold it unfit for survival.

Ignoring Natural Limits

The historical experience of exploiting other lands and societies sets up the general practice of living beyond one’s limits.  The cataclysmic result is indicated in Overshoot, reviewed in Rachel’s Environmental Weekly for February 12, 2009-a fitting essay with which to commemorate Darwin’s 200th birthday.  Overshoot details the ways in which humans have temporarily increased the carrying capacity of the land (its ability to support human populations) by using up past resources (such as oil that takes millions of years to produce and minerals that will never be replaced) and future resources (ones necessary to the lives of our children).

Colonialism and certain dynamics of modern globalization  encourage such “overshooting”, when  some nations exploit the resources of others in order to survive, rather than living on their own natural budgets.

Ultimately however, an overshooting society runs out of “ghost acreage” on which to rely-and must face the dilemma of supporting an overblown population on ravaged natural systems.

In short, it inevitably crashes.

Social violence and unrest

Societies with beliefs in heroic conquest and legitimized oppression are fraught with internal dissension. As a result, they are the most short-lived societies in human history. They are fortunate to eke out a few hundred years before their collapse, as opposed to tens of thousands of years of longevity of certain indigenous societies.

Decreasing natural and cultural diversity

The thrust of natural evolution is to increase diversity–as Herbert Spengler, modern author of the theory of “social Darwinism”, acknowledged– though he failed to address how Manifest Destiny itself ran counter to such diversity in replacing hundreds of other human cultures with colonial ones on the North American and African continents.

In the modern industrial era, globalization directed by”mal-developed” nations (as Vandana Shiva has called them) use technological fixes unresponsive to unique ecological landscapes. Modern global development too often directly counters diversity in its emphasis on mono-technology (as in mono-cropping), as it attempts to adapt all landscapes to such one-size-fits-all subsistence strategies.

But diversification is necessary to natural selection. More choices allow more opportunities for natural selection and diverse systems are more resilient in the face of stress than homogenous ones. Place-sensitive small farming is more resilient to drought and disease than large scale industrial farming, for instance.

But modern globalization homogenizes both culture and place.  No McDonald’s is different from any other-no matter what the landscape on which it sits. Modern development results in the replacement of perhaps millions of other species with the human one.  As Murray Bookchin argues, this is not progress but reverse evolution.

Ignorance of adaptive processes

Darwin’s theory tells us that natural selection operates through the adaptation of species to their environments.  But this is hardly the same thing as the simple elimination of physically (or militarily) weak by those who are physically stronger.

Adaptation is a far different thing from seizure or reshaping of the land or control of its life systems.  Adaptation is a two-way process.  In order for there to be successful adaptation of the land to human needs, there must also be successful adaptation of humans to the land.

Physical power, that is, is not commensurate with adaptation. If the predator wipes out all its prey, it wipes out its own means of survival. Predators must have a complementary relationship with their prey in order for that relationship to be adaptive.

Ultimately, as Bookchin and Val Plumwood both observe, the sustainable predator-prey relationship is a balanced or egalitarian one. In any ecological system, even the “top predator” is eventually eaten as well as eater. In this way energy and resources are recirculated:  the life that we borrow from the natural system, as Plumwood puts it, goes back to the pool of life from whence it came.

In modern society, we try to avoid consciousness of the reciprocal natural of this process, Plumwood also notes, by embalming human bodies as if we could lift them out of the natural cycle.  But we aren’t doing either nature or ourselves any favor here. We thus enforce ignorance of the systems upon which we rely for survival-and turning cemeteries into toxic waste dumps, since the only way to stop decomposition of a human body is to fill it with poison.

An added irony here is that top predators are more vulnerable to the toxics we release in our environment today than are those lower on the food chain.  Such toxics concentrate as they move up the food chain. If, as the saying goes, it’s lonely at the top, it’s dangerous there too. This is only one way in which top predators are more fragile than their complements who live lower on the food chain.

Denied dependency on sources of survival

In any system based on domination, those at the top deny their dependency on the ones at the bottom, as Plumwood has also analyzed in detail. Thus the slave owners in the Old South devalued the real contribution of slaves to their “civilization”.  And the household labor of women is not financially compensated-as if it were worth nothing.

In worldviews marked by hierarchy and domination, humans also ignore and render invisible their dependency on the natural life that they deemed “lower” than humanity.  The ignorance of our dependency on natural systems allows us to blithely undermine our means of survival.

Denied vulnerability and bonding

There are other ways in which the overrun and overcome model of “survival of the fittest” blinds its holder to the actual workings of social and ecological relationships.  In terms of this model, there is no benefit in being vulnerable to others.  But in human societies, the links between vulnerability and bonding bring us culture itself. Just as the long dependency period of human children allows them to learn their culture, the physical vulnerability of elders puts them in a position to pass on cultural information.

As an added note to those who would link survival of the fittest to the sociobiological perspective that sees natural behavior primarily motivated by passing one’s genes around, there is the fact that in some societies social fathering is more important than genetic fathering. That is, identifying the actual genetic father of a child is of little consequence, and the man who nurtures a child and passes on personal has the real status as “father”.

Humans are not the only ones to whom things other than physical strength count in the social arena. Dog and wolf packs will often defer to an older, more experienced animal in spite of its relative physical weakness or smaller stature.

Loss of achievement through competition

Contrary to the competitive notion of survival of the fittest, competition does not always breed achievement-including the transmission of genes.  Take the case of the red deer of Ireland.  Their fight to the death amidst clashing of antlers embodies our myth of the young stag who replaces the older and weaker one.   But observation of the actual breeding habits of these deer indicates that while the more aggressive stags are fighting (often to the death), the other deer are breeding.

Similarly, in a recent study on bison University of California researchers found that the bulls  with the quietest calls are the ones most likely to breed.  Megan Wyman, the study’s lead author, speculates that these bulls keep a “low profile” in order to avoid a fight that would cause them to lose access to females.

In yet another examples, a  PBS documentary on the wolves of Yellowstone illustrates the breeding success of a wolf observers dubbed “Casanova” because he was so interested in breeding– but careful to avoid all fights with his peers.  When the alpha wolves of his clan were killed by other aggressive wolves, he wound up being the only male to pass on his genes.   A recent interview with a researcher on NPR revealed that DNA analysis verified that alpha baboons were passing on their genes far less frequently than baboons of less status that were “pals” with females.

These instances illustrate how natural selection may take more aggressive individuals out of the gene pool.

I am not saying this always happens– but I am saying the formula physical-dominance- equals-breeding is far too simplistic to explain what happens within a species, much less in whole  ecological systems.

As for another wolf-related species with which we are intimately familiar, Temple Grandin, in her book Animals Make us Human has recently argued the scientific case that those who see dogs in the wild as having dominance hierarchies are decidedly wrong.  She undercuts the notion of the “alpha” dog with considerable data.  She does not dispute that those dogs living in human homes in contact with multiple other dogs in crowded conditions might express hierarchies as a method of maintaining order.  She only insists that such cannot be attributed to the nature of dogs.

In the human arena, psychologist Alfie Kohn has written several books on the importance of altruism and cooperation. His findings are summed up in a popular article called “How to Succeed without even Vying”, in which he tells the story of his search for an experiment that indicated competition improved performance.  He couldn’t find any-in spite of the fact that many experimenters set up their work to support the positive effects of competition.

Their results indicated that competition actually hampered performance.  Kohn speculates that the energy siphoned off in worrying about getting the other guy subtracts from performance, whereas cooperation adds energy to groups endeavors.

Fostering Illness rather than Health

On the basis of their research, geneticists in a recent essay in Science proposed that we define health in the physical body, natural systems, and social systems as cooperation– and illness in those same arenas as competition.

Their research  indicates  that cells in the healthy mammal body operate on complex cooperative dynamics–but when a sick cell leaves the cooperative cycle– and begins competing with others on an individualistic basis– we get illnesses such as cancer.

The Alternative: Survival of those who fit in

There is an alternative model to competitive or aggressive interpretations  of “survival of the fittest” expressed by long-lived societies who perceive human fitness for survival as “fitting into country”, in the words of indigenous Australians who explained this to anthropologist Deborah Rose. Longevity was directly linked to being “rooted to this ground” and acting with care before the “eyes” of the others who share it, as expressed by Chehalis elder Henry Cultee.

The article by Rose cites Tim Flannery’s analysis of the ecological operation of a particular Australian landscape and the resulting conclusion that “species that cooperate in large, complex systems have the best change for continuing life.”

Here is a quote from Rose, summing the knowledge she learned from her Aboriginal teachers:  unlike the “theory of survival through competition, an indigenous concept of survival of the fittest denotes…[that] those who are most fit are those who know most about how to fit in… It offers a synergistic account of life in which fitness is a project shared amongst living things, rather than a scare resource to be competed for. And it brings people into country as participants rather than ‘winners’” (p. 120)

Societies who have linked survival with fitting in traditionally managed their landscapes for resilient biodiversity, based on reciprocity and mutual adaptation between humans and nature.  Today these societies are in a special position to care for earth’s living systems in the face of stresses induced by industrialization, since modern indigenous peoples currently steward eighty per cent of the world’s biodiversity.

It is a misuse of the theories of a man who cautioned himself “never to use the words ‘higher’ and ‘lower” to perceive evolution as based on dominating hierarchies– especially human-established ones that  falsely preach that survivors are those who wipe out and replace other natural lives.


This essay is under copyright protection as is all the material on this site, but please feel free to link to it, or to copy it, crediting its source.  If you want to reproduce it any other way, please email me for permission at holdenma@comcast.net. Thanks for visiting this site.

An Easter Meditation: Natural Resurrection

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By Madronna Holden

“The waters are reminding people that they can use their healing gifts when we use ours.”

–Robin Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

Kimmerer’s words have reference to a process of natural resurrection that is fitting to ponder this Easter day. Death in this case does not refer to the natural cycle of life and death—but a chemical death perpetrated on Lake Onondaga such that life seemed no longer possible there.

Lake Onondaga was the site of some of the worst chemical contamination of industrialization. It is also a place sacred to the traditional Onondaga. Their love – a term Kimmerer is not afraid to use—for this lake motivated a plan for clean-up and restoration in the worst of circumstances. Thus the Onondaga went to court not to plead their case for regaining ownership of the lake and its surrounding land, but rather, their right to protect and restore it.

Though they have certainly won their suit on moral grounds, the US Supreme recently refused to hear their claim.  Now they have taken it to the International Human Rights Commission. And though they did not sue to retain land title, some local land has been gifted to them anyway.

The Onondaga face a daunting task in caring for their traditional homelands. The Lake is not only an ancient Onondaga sacred site, but a Superfund site. The soil surrounding the lake is chalk white from chemical contamination, and the rains saturate the water table, bringing more of those same chemicals into the lake. For a time it looked like the waters of Onondaga could support neither plant nor animal life.

But with care, things began to turn around. With the dredging out of some contaminated soil, the closure of nearby factories, rebuilding of local sewage systems, planting willows to soak up contaminated water before it leeches back to the lake along with native salt-resistant plants (some of which have survived the chemical-laced soil), and windblown seed taking root on patches of polluted land–and traditional dancing on the lakeshore in prayer for the restoration of the human-land relationship here– the lake waters and surrounding lands have begun to support life once again.

There are even small numbers of trout in the lake and eagles overhead—though eating the local fish is an iffy proposition with respect to the health of those eagles, as is swimming in the lake to the health of humans.

But as Kimmerer asserts, it is not “the land that has been broken, but our relationship to it”, and when that relationship is restored, miracles of resurrected life take place. In places, the chemical-laden soil supports green life again—even an unlikely and revered patch of Sweetgrass.

“The land”, she observes, “knows what to do when we do not.”

Healing the wounds created by human misuse is a slow process. And one that should not obliterate our memory of the results of our actions. Kimmerer thinks it would be good for some small portion of that dead soil to remain as a monument to what humans should avoid.

But in the wake of the natural reciprocity upon which life depends, large changes come. In Kimmerer’s words:

The granulated soil the ants have mounded around the[ir] hills is white as snow. Grain by grain, in their tiny mandibles, they are carrying up waste from below and carrying seeds and bits of leaves down into the soil. The grasses feed the ants with seeds and the ants feed the grasses with soil. They hand off life to one another. Leaf by leaf, root by root, the trees, the berries, the grasses are joining forces, and so there re birds and deer and bugs have come to join them. And so the world is made.

And so the world is made indeed.

So it is also remade each spring with the exuberant bursting out of life. Just looking at the irrepressible green everywhere makes me smile and come down with “spring fever” that makes it nearly impossible to stay indoors on any passably warm day.

Currently, I am watching the pageant of diversity in my backyard with its myriad of tiny ecosystems—and plants making decisions about when to show themselves in each of them. Fifteen feet away from one another, one serviceberry is in full bloom and another’s buds are barely swelling.

One of my favorite pastimes is wandering through my small urban yard, watching the surprises seeded there by animals or wind—or the sheer persistence of plant communities. A patch of the native salal I am trying to establish has cooperated in a way I never expected. It ran under three feet of cement sidewalk and popped up on the other side where it will certainly begin to spread itself beyond my hopes.

Natural resurrection is a sure thing as long as we keep our part of the bargain.

This particular Easter the weather is also a good reminder of what we humans do not control. The day was marked by a hail-bearing thunderstorm with flashing lightning, coming on the heels of near freezing overnight temperatures. We had such an early warm spring last month (causing many blossoms to burst out) and such cold rainy weather recently (keeping the pollinators in their nests and washing out the blooms), I wonder how our fruit will be pollinated.

Yet I have noticed that whereas some of the younger local fruit trees burst forth at the first sign of warmth, others of the same species hold back and come later, like my own apple and plum and cherry—and thus they are more likely to get themselves pollinated.

I can’t claim to understand this. Have the elder trees in my yard learned from experience? Can they read the weather better than the newcomers? In line with botanist Matthew Hall’s analysis of “plants as persons”, they are also certainly decision-makers in ways we don’t understand.

“Going on the side of life”, as indigenous elders framed their ethical responsibility to the world that sustains us, means assuming the stance of humility in our partnership with other lives. Allotting them such decision-making capacities.

It also means facing the effects of our own actions on those other lives even when it makes us uncomfortable and brings us hard choices.

Sadly, there is great grief today in facing what we have done in the world: in climate change and species extinction, for instance. But the Onondaga show us what it is to work to heal what we have done.

And when we do our part, as Kimmerer notes, the land does its.

For whatever is lost, there is also what is found. These are things that call for celebration as we stand on the side of life. They are gifts, small and large—and often wondrous and mysterious as our natural partners surprise us with their uniqueness and resilience.

These are things we should not fail to celebrate, for they give us essential perspective in our responsibility for loving this world.

Fighting the Instincts of Self-Destruction

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By Madronna Holden

A good culture fights the instincts of self-destruction.”

—-Chinua Achebe

Lessons from an indigenous society

Among particular US Plains Indians, the traditional position of chief was based strictly on service rather than privilege. If other tribal members were hungry, it was the chief’s duty to feed them before he fed himself or his family. The chief’s teepee served as refuge for those embroiled in conflicts—and should those conflicts come to battle, his body was the first on the battle line.

The service required of the chief was so arduous that this position sometimes went vacant.

There are lessons in the undercutting of privilege in enduring human cultures like those above. I like to imagine the homes of our wealthy filled with those they are obligated to feed—a society in which wealth creates a duty to care for others rather setting privilege in the hands of a few.

And certainly contemporary warfare would take a cut if those who declared it were required to place their own bodies first on the battle lines.

No one had to inform these Plains societies of the ways in which privilege could undermine their society. For those who inappropriately tried to parlay leadership into privilege, they also had a remedy. A chief who misused his authority was liable to wake up alone on the Plains, where he would be chief of nobody after his people had abandoned him.

This is not a bad strategy today in the face of corporate privilege. Small communities all over the US are turning their backs on a Congress that caters to what money can buy to go about the business of caring for their communities—prohibiting pesticide use (as did a town in Maine), regulating or prohibiting the growing of genetically engineered seed to protect local farmers’ crops (in Santa Cruz County, Trinity County, Marin County, Mendocino County, and Humboldt County in California, San Juan County in Washington, Maui County and Hawaii County in Hawaii and Jackson County in Oregon) — or creating standards of carbon emissions to address climate change (in California, Oregon, and Washington—and north of the US in British Columbia).

Corporations well understand what such community moves mean to their privilege. Thus those bent on oil drilling are suing to put down a New Mexico community ordinance prohibiting fracking to protect local ranches – and Monsanto, along with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, is suing Vermont for its legislation labeling genetically engineered food.

These will not be easily won battles—it is no simple thing to confront privilege in the modern world where money buys so much. But in the end the largest international corporations are no more without their community base than a chief’s teepee alone on the Plains. Social privilege derives from society just as economic wealth is extracted from society– and society can revoke either of these.

We can choose where to spend our dollars—and thus reward corporations whose actions help to create what most of us actually want– a more just and environmentally sustainable world. At the same time we can stop rewarding those on a societal level whose actions create wealth for themselves and a diminished and dangerous world for our children.

Modern corporations know such choices are not small gestures, as indicated by the money they spend on “greenwashing” or “humanewashing” campaigns, which play on citizens’ desires to support ethical and environmentally sustainable businesses.

These corporations might benefit from dropping the semblance and simply acting according to standards their communities can support.

Take the case of Forrest Paint, a family-owned business in Eugene, Oregon. When the Eugene Toxics Right to Know ordinance was passed, it required them to publically list the toxics used and emitted in their business—and to be taxed accordingly.

At first Forrest Paint attacked that ordinance, joining a legal suit along with other businesses to strike it down. But after a year or two of battling on, they got smarter. Forrest Paint installed an innovative state of the art recovery process for its chemicals. It has now become a national leader in non-toxic paint manufacturing.

Instincts of Self-Destruction

All communities need elders, mediators, and grandparents whose wisdom and presence serve as refuge for the vulnerable and guides for the future. Today we also need business leaders like Seventh Generation Chairman and “Chief Inspired Protagonist” Jeffrey Hollender and Fortune 500 CEO Max DePree—and the Forrest family– to keep our economy running.

Yet as the Chehalis Indians observed, power is just as dangerous as it is powerful. Authority can easily get out of hand. Thus enduring societies have mechanisms with which to direct and guide the power they allocate to any individual or group of individuals. Hollender (“Regulate Me, Please”) reminds us a society that operates in economic free fall with its dictum of “internalizing benefits” (keeping profits for oneself) and “externalizing costs” (passing them off to others) supports those who create what few of us want.

This process also unfairly taxes those who would do the right thing, since it costs ethical business more than those who don’t abide by environmental or social justice considerations. In the contemporary world this has left us with climate change, an escalating cancer epidemic caused by environmental contaminants and a society in which one per cent of the population controls 99 per cent of its wealth.

A working democracy needs another tact. Indeed, a surviving society needs a another tact.

The founders of the US knew such regulation was necessary. In order to earn their license to operate, the first US corporations had to prove they provided service to their communities—and they had to continue to do so. Their licenses were only renewed on condition of their continuing good conduct.

“The best societies”, says Nobel Prize winning novelist Chinua Achebe, “fight the instincts of self-destruction”. A key “impulse of self-destruction” is the impulse to dominate others. Achebe illustrates with an historical example from his Igbo (Nigerian) tradition. The Igbo knew themselves well—they knew that each man among them wished to be king. They limited this impulse by structuring their society as a constellation of small face to face communities—villages in which power could be asserted in socially constructive ways and the abuse of power thwarted.

The Igbo were well aware there were other possibilities for structuring society—such as the nations the British deemed more “civilized”. But they kept to their villages because they knew themselves– and thus devised this way to “fight their instincts of self-destruction”.

Cultural Deregulation

When British colonialism supplanted the traditional Igbo social structure, 600 Igbo villages suddenly had kings vying to rule over their fellows. As depicted in Achebe’s classic novel, Things Fall Apart, individuals with a strong impulse toward leadership—who might have made positive contributions and been honored for them in the cultural context that regulated and directed their power—were left in the lurch.

Their actions not only tore their societies apart, but bled any sense of meaning from their own lives.

Jeffrey Hollender lends contemporary perspective to this dynamic in his essay, “Regulate Me, Please” which lays out the logic of ground rules to guide business activities toward creating what most of us want: clean and just and sustainable communities. The cooperative stance of unions and auto makers in Germany is an example of the positive outcomes of a regulatory environment in which human dignity and economic well-being are linked.

It is the responsibility of a community that assigns power to any individual or group of individuals to offer guidance and direction along with that power—lest what might otherwise serve society tear it apart. Without such regulation, as Hollender asserts, “business is eventually doomed to eat itself”—to erode the social and environmental ground that allows it to flourish.

Without regulation, power easily becomes privilege—setting loose the impulses of self-destruction that today threaten the very survival of life on our precious planet.

Becoming a “good culture”

To be a thriving culture we need to know ourselves well. We need to understand our own impulses—and also how to best use these—to guide them so that they do not become self-destructive.

We need to understand our responsibility—as individuals and members of our communities—to shape and guide the power we license. To Thomas Jefferson’s observation that we cannot find too many ways to divide power, we might add that we cannot find too many ways to educate ourselves about the results of our actions—or too many ways to reward actions that result in the society we want—and inhibit those that do not.

Achebe’s perspective tells us that there are no perfect human beings—anymore than there are perfect human societies.

But as we face the challenge of repairing a world in which every natural system is currently in decline and wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, we have both the capability and the imperative of becoming one of those good cultures that “fights the instincts of self-destruction.”

Mythic Physics: How We See the World Changes the World

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By Madronna Holden

Our Goldilocks Planet

In The Universe is a Green Dragon physicist Brian Swimme asserts that physics needs a story large enough to encompass the meaning of the natural world and our place within it. Physics at least needs a story large enough to embrace its own puzzles. Ninety-six per cent of our universe, as New Scientist writer Michael Brooks puts it in 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense is “missing” – made up of “dark matter” and “dark energy” that physics is unable to describe in spite of its wide scale effects. As our measurements grow more precise, science has also learned that those numbers once considered constants in the physical world vary in different places and likely in different times as well.

Such variability has spurred some physicists to suggest that our universe is actually a “multiverse” bubbling up fountains of “baby universes”, each with the potential to become a universe with its own variants of space and time—and laws of nature. Though, of course, we don’t know how or why this might happen.

For over a hundred years physics has been grappling with the fact that its theories describing the smallest and largest parts of the natural world do not fit together—they are off by a factor of millions. Relativity theory describing the behavior of the stars is wildly inaccurate when applied to the subatomic level, just as the quantum theory accurate at the subatomic level is wildly inaccurate with anything much larger.

Physicists are, however, sure of one thing. Whatever our ability to measure, predict and understand the laws of nature, here on our home planet earth, those laws pertain precisely as needed for us to exist. Like Goldilocks in the fairy tale, who found a place “just right” for her, the physicist’s “Goldilocks zone” refers to the “just rightness” of our own place in the cosmos. It is here we have come to life as if it everything has been prepared to us.

Astrophysicists searching for extraterrestrial life debate standards for locating other potential “Goldilocks” planets. But there is good deal more to our own “just right” planet than such things as being the right distance from a proper star.

In the eloquent words of native writer and naturalist Linda Hogan each of our lives is “the result of the love of thousands.”

Physics does not dwell on the poetry or ethics of our coming to life but it does count the odds—and they are literally astronomical. The Big Bang originating our universe took place with a temperature so precise that had it been off by a fraction of a degree so tiny as to be unimaginable all the matter in the universe would either have been instantly incinerated or condensed forever into a cold immobile point.

Instead it spread out to create galaxies like our own, in which stars spun off in the universe-making extravaganza, one of which was a sun like ours which broke off a piece of itself to become earth—a piece just the right size at the right time with the right orbit, with the right size moon itself breaking off from earth in a meteor strike—and as time went on, the right proportions of land and liquid water, as well as the right geological history under our blanket of air yielding breath, protection from most asteroid strikes, and warming us with just the right amount of solar heat while radiating the rest off into space. Thus physicists term ours the “Goldilocks planet” in a “Goldilocks universe”.

But we should perhaps take our analogy with the Goldilocks story further. Finding a planet so wondrously suited to our lives is not all there is to the story. There is a family of bears that created the home Goldilocks finds “just right” for herself. In like fashion, nature’s more than human lives prepared the way for our own.

And nature’s bears will also give us feedback if we don’t treat the home lavishly prepared for us properly—feedback such as the current cancer epidemic, the loss of our domestic honeybees and so many wild species that, as native writer Paula Gunn Allen puts it, no longer wish to be our companions here.

And increasingly tragic weather disasters and rising oceans are coming with climate change.

Just as the immature Goldilocks recklessly used whatever she found without any heed to its builders, we post-industrial humans have some growing up to do with respect to our treatment of our “just right’ planet.

Marrying the Bear: The limits of human thought

One hallmark of maturation is self-understanding.

It is not only physics’ mysteries that teach us humility with respect to our knowledge—but the limits of our own thinking. As Nobel Laureate Kurt Gödel’s theorem illustrates, our knowledge can go no further than its initial assumptions. Within any system of thinking, that is, the most elaborate findings can only be variations on the assumptions with which we start.

Thus if we build our society on the assumptions of a hierarchical worldview which places some humans over others and all humans over the natural world, for instance, we will be stuck with a society of winners and losers, of rich and poor– and a denigrated natural world.

Gödel’s conclusion that we can only properly assess any system of thought if we see it as a whole—from without—is supported by physicist Michio Kaku’s analogy of fish swimming in their small pond in his Physics of the Impossible. Such fish will know only the water in their pond—until the day it rains and stirs them to notice there is another dimension to their water: something from without.

In like manner, we need to get out of ourselves—and our worldviews– to understand our own world. Kaku uses his fish pond to discuss a many-dimensioned world like the one with the ten or eleven dimensions necessary for the string theory bringing relativity and quantum mechanics into alignment.

But stepping out of the human-centered worldview as a method for making choices is a practice of long-lived indigenous cultures—whose stories and rituals prompted perceptions from a more than human perspective. The Rose Red tale from Europe as well as numerous tales throughout Native America relate how the bear who appears dangerous and savage in one human view can in another view be seen to be so much like us that we fall in love with its distinction and spirit. Unlike the immature Goldilocks who treats the bear’s home with such abandon, these stories sport brave and compassionate heroes who marry the bear –who in turn becomes an ally essential to survival.

Discovering and honoring how the lives of others contribute to our own is science’s way of “marrying the bear” today, when expanding our limited worldviews is more important than ever.

It is especially important to protect remaining global biological and cultural diversity as the library of our own expanded consciousness.

How We Perceive the World Changes the World

Changing our perceptions of the world changes the world. Quantum theory tells us that the building blocks of the physical world go in and out of existence as waves and particles. In his uncertainty principle, Werner Heisenberg tells us more: if an observer sees these quanta as waves, they become waves, and if that same observer sees them as particles, they become particles.

To change our perception of the world is to change the world.

This is very different, however, from controlling the world. That would only work if we were alone in it—if there were no other lives here with their own perceptions and purposes. We are instead in intimate and inescapable relationship with others in our world in the way of any two atoms that once touched. Move them to the opposite ends of the earth and what happens to one is registered in the response of the other. This “action at a distance” is another of contemporary physics’ mysteries.

This is also how intimately connected our world is: our gaze upon it changes it—as in the traditional belief that directing an appreciative gaze on a plant helps it grow. As we direct our gaze upon the earth we create a wave-or-particle-world by turn certain and visionary: as solid and sure as the earth beneath our feet and as fraught with possibility as the seed pressed into that earth.

Thus the world turns in our eyes—as it also turns in the eyes of others. His Lower Chehalis ancestors told Henry Culture, “The eyes of the world are looking at you”, explaining that it is before those eyes that human understanding of right action emerges. The Chehalis also believed those eyes of the earth judged human longevity as surely physicists believe that our observations of them construct waves and particles.

As I write this in January of 2015, I cannot predict what waits for us in the year ahead. But I can predict this much: the way we perceive our “just right” home planet will change the world. And if we shape our perceptions with respect, gratefulness and care, this will be a very good year indeed.

The Long Nights of Winter: The Earth’s Sleep and Our Own

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Madronna Holden (copyright 2014)

Sleep is essential not only to memory and formation  of new neural connections, but also to our brain’s physiological maintenance.  Thus sleep researchers explain why we evolved this physically dangerous activity—picture humans asleep on our ancestral African savannah with nocturnal predators on the prowl.

The dreams that lace our sleep, in turn, are as crucial to our mental function as our daylight rationality. In laboratory experiments those deprived of REM (rapid eye movement or dreaming) sleep grow increasingly disoriented in their waking lives, finally hallucinating visions they are deprived of in sleep. REM is apparently our most crucial type of sleep, since it the type our bodies make up first after sleep deprivation.

Perhaps we most need dreams to remind us of the connections by which our world operates. Theologian Matthew Fox and biologist Rupert Sheldrake propose that in sleep we fall back into the experience of the primal oneness of life, bridging the boundaries that separate us from one another in the light of day.  There is something to be said for this, since our dreams are associative in nature, exploring connections of every kind, from the fantastic and the visionary to the mundane and spurious.

These nighttime associations alert us to what we might otherwise ignore — as in Gail Tremblay’s poem in Indian Singing in the Twentieth Century, in which the Coyote comes down from museum walls at night to dance with his curators. Like Coyote’s night business, ancient ceremonies honor the earth’s season of sleep in the long nights of winter by increasing awareness of what we may ignore in the light of habit. The early Roman Saturnalia that took place at the time of the winter solstice (the longest night of the year) shifted the ordinary order of things, closing courts and schools, interrupting wars, dismissing old grudges—and reversing social statuses of master and slave.

Unfortunately, under the later Roman Empire, the Saturnalia degenerated into a licentious spree. Likewise, Coyote stories illustrate both the need for creative action and the need for balance in applying it.  Coyote tales in indigenous North American sometimes portray Coyote as a wise transformer and other times as foolishly self-defeating, his escapades destroying himself and those around him.

Thus Coyote tales explore the impulse of experimentation within us– but not everything we think of should be done. In like fashion, indigenous tales from pioneer days on the Olympic Peninsula warn that certain pioneer technologies had their downsides—making humans work harder when they were meant to make things easier.

Doing whatever he thinks of is Coyote’s method, but as his stories show, this is not a wise course of action. Without moral standards and critical assessment, our creative impulses generate unintended consequences—as do too many forms of technology in the modern day.

Our dreams with their associative structures are here to remind us what we might otherwise forget—that we live in an interdependent world. They create awareness as do the salmon-shaped stickers placed on storm drains that announce, “Drains to stream”. Our world is made up of connections—and thus the waste we dispose of goes somewhere to affect other lives.

Traditional winter ceremonies, in turn, make conscious associations like those our dreams make spontaneously.  Ceremonies in the indigenous Pacific Northwest emphasize the connections between the living and dead, for instance, and designate the long nights of winter as the occasion of storytelling, bringing ancestral memory to consciousness.

This parallels the case in old Europe, where the archeology tells us Stonehenge is both a monument to the solstices (especially the winter solstice) and home to the ancestors–  a five mile circuit  there linking the living and the dead.

Vision and memory merge in winter ceremonies as they do in our dreams–and these are linked with healing in its root meaning of “wholeness”.  This shamans know as they travel to the land of the ancestors to access healing power in long winter nights—and Merlin practiced in a folk history of Britain. building Stonehenge from stones with medicinal power.

Winter ceremonies thus honor the similarity between the physiological housekeeping that cleans our brains of waste chemicals in sleep and the winter housekeeping of earth, whose cleansing cold destroys particular viruses, bacteria, and molds— and thus inhibits the spread of certain diseases—a concern if global warming allows these to proliferate instead.  Indeed, the most recent meetings of the American Society for the Advancement of Science included a paper given by Michael Grigg, 0f University of British Columbia and the National Institute of Health, who observed that “ice is a major eco-barrier for pathogens”–and thus the current “big thaw” is resulting in the “liberation of pathogens gaining access to vulnerable new hosts and wreaking havoc”.

Fleas and lice are destroyed by a month in a deep freeze—as are the larvae of the wax moth that trouble honeybee frames. Winter cold is necessary to other things as well: without a certain number of hours of winter chill, the apple tree will not bear—nor will other fruit trees that have their own winter chill requirements.

Beneath the snow the soil works transformations that support life, composting waste into fertility. Like the resulting black soil, our deep selves are rendered fertile in what they remake from our psychic wastes—our pain, our confusion, our illness, our weakness, our vulnerability.

Black soil is life-sustaining. Light soil, which has taken on few wastes to transform, is feeble by comparison.

Many of us in the industrialized world live at conscious remove from the earth’s seasonal cycles.  But this winter’s storms have brought us back to that connection in no uncertain terms. For all our technological expertise, we are still embedded in the natural world—and we cannot escape responsibility for carbon pollution and ensuing climate instability.

The vanishing ice that the polar bear would rest on, the melting glaciers that cause sea levels to rise in island nations, and the melting permafrost that makes swamp of former solid ground in the Arctic, are a few of earth’s reminders of the necessity of honoring the balance of seasons.

Such reminders are a grave part of life in the Philippines and the Arctic—and thus their leaders are among the strongest advocates for reduction of the global carbon output.

Seasonal cold even has a role in keeping us warm. Raising temperatures– and thus melting polar ice sheets– may well cause North America and Northern Europe to suffer colder winters due to the influence of melting ice on ocean currents.

We cannot escape the necessity of seasonal balance any more than we can escape our daily patterns of sleep and waking. Just as the earth’s rhythms remind of the necessity of her seasons, our bodies alert us to our own cycles of light and dark.  Should we neglect either of these, we suffer reminders such as the wild weather this winter in North America—and the upsurge of breast cancer among shift workers.

Like the transformation of wastes into fertile soil, the caterpillar wrapped in its cocoon reminds us that that which is sleeping is also being remade.  Admittedly, it may be inconvenient to experience such melt—and the dissolution of all boundaries as the caterpillar must before it can realize its future as a butterfly.

But it is a wise society whose stories allow us to see beyond the boundaries habit and convenience describe. With their good work of exposing the results of our choices such stories release our creative vision as they allow us to remember our past and avoid its mistakes.

We could use a few such stories to shift the habitual order of things, giving us an occasion to loosen old grudges, stop wars—or reverse the roles of factory workers and CEOs.

We could use ceremonies that bring to awareness those ideas—or people—our society excludes, like the homeless who filled “warming centers” during this past December’s unprecedented cold (ten below zero) in my home of Eugene, Oregon.  Those tending these shelters re-gather into community men and women more easily ignored in fair weather when they are not so likely to die on our streets, as did the man for whom Eugene’s shelters are named, Thomas Egan.

We cannot escape the fact that these homeless are members—and results– of our society any more than we can escape the seasons.

As the earth’s ancient ceremonies indicate, the long nights of winter are put to good use in psychological and social cleansing cold.

Winter is a perfect time to remember we are creatures of vision as well as daily habit– to re-gather our memories, extend our community, and dream our future well.

Science is Never Certain (and Lichens Don’t Cure Cancer Either)

By Madronna Holden

updated 12.11.2013

Lichens don’t cure cancer, or rather, we don’t know whether they do — in spite of the article accepted for publication by over one hundred scientific journals touting the lichen cure.  The article  is a fake created by the journal Science, and it has some large bloopers, including the assertion of findings not related to its research, and promises to forge ahead with human testing without any safety protocols.

This bogus study is meant to demonstrate the importance of peer review and prestigious “first tier” journals as against “open access” journals. But not all “first tier” journals like Science caught the problems in the fake, whereas the open access journal PLoS ONE did. According to an analysis published on October 19, 2013, contemporary scientific work in general is riddled with errors.

Indeed, the larger issue in need of discussion here is the intersection of science and culture—and science and profit.

Science itself recently published a research paper that has since been widely discredited– and it is not the only prestigious scientific journal with such problems.  Of 73 articles recently published by the New England Journal of Medicine, 50 were co-authored by drug company ghostwriters. 

Rather than tightening their peer review process in light of this, the Journal decided to de-emphasize the critical assessment of industry funding   Lest we think industry funding has little impact on research results, we should note that research sponsored by drug companies portrays drugs as positive 3.6 times more than the same research funded by government or non-profits.

Notably, certain journals have taken a more proactive stand in this respect.  The British Medical Journal  (as they write in an editorial just this month) have joined PLoS Medicine, PLos One, PloS Biology, The Journal of Health Psychology, as well as journals published by the American Thoracic Society, in the refusal to publish research funded in whole or part by the tobacco industry.

Such a stand acknowledges the ways that industry shapes knowledge to amplify profit as in the cases of those  who hid health effects of lead on children,  of plastics manufacture on workers—and of heart irregularities in those taking Vioxx and Avandia–and the company who launched a secret research program to vindicate asbestos.

By burying and tinkering with scientific data, companies postponed the loss of profit resulting from making good data public.

The profit motive calls into question the work of the American Council on Science and Health, an advocacy group that is a self-proclaimed attacker of “junk science” — going after environmental and health legislation and defending the likes of fracking, BPA, and pesticides.  Secret documents recently made public indicate that that group is directly funded by industries selling the products it defends.

Gilbert Ross, the research group’s director, previously had his medical license pulled while he served time in prison for defrauding the New York State Medicaid program to the tune of 8 million dollars.

And even if we take the profit motive out of the equation, cultural values play a large part in scientific findings.   Peer reviewers for instance, may unwittingly add to social prejudice.  Social psychologist Laura Purdy makes a case for hiring seemingly less qualified women in order to give women an equal chance, since not only do scientific discoveries take longer to be accepted if made by women, but both men and women in the contemporary US evaluate the very same resumes and articles as “better” if attributed to a man rather than a woman.

Respected scientist Shirley Strum relates how her own groundbreaking research on baboons was at first locked out of regular academic and publishing channels. The “old boy” scholars did not want to give up their position on innate baboon aggressiveness and male dominance in spite of Strum’s research, which was more meticulous than their own.  She was the first to actually follow baboons on their daily rounds in the field, as well as to record  social interactions of particular troops and individual baboons.

Geneticist Barbara McClintock was forced to finance her own work when universities and research institutions refused to hire her.  Her breakthroughs eventually won her the Nobel Prize, but in the context of Western science, her method of “listening to the corn” traveled a hard road to acceptance.

Eileen Pollock’s recent New York Times essay outlines the ongoing problems of gender prejudice in evaluating scientific work—as well as in assessing potentials of students going into science.

Such prejudice effects acceptance of knowledge from non-mainstream cultures as well.  I am old enough to remember the dismissal of indigenous ecological knowledge by mainstream peer reviewers. Today the burgeoning of ecological science and the number of indigenous individuals earning advanced degrees has created a social context in which such knowledge can take its rightful place in scientific understanding.

Predisposition shades our scientific observations in purely physical ways as well. Purdy also cites an experiment in which observers recorded the performance of one group of rats in a maze as better than another—even though the groups were in fact entirely equal.  The difference?  The observers were told beforehand that one group was smarter.

Maintaining that “objective” science circumvents social and personal values only makes such values unconscious. Goethe once observed, “all fact is really theory”.  A presumed “fact”, that is, exists in the context of a particular worldview  which is itself a theory of the world entailing assumptions, perceptions, and choices. As Thomas Kuhn’s history of Western science details, science has persistently ignored data that does not fit the worldview of its time—only accepting such data after a shift in worldview.

This history provides a solid case for the critical assessment of scientific values. What we are conscious of, we can compensate for.  What we don’t recognize, on the other hand, we can’t fix—as in the tragic medical errors that kill at least 98,000 annually in the context of a culture within medical schools that encourages doctors to ignore mistakes—since it teaches that doctors don’t make them.

It is this same culture that causes scientific errors in general to be denied-– and problems of data fraud to be passed on to “others”.  A compilation of twenty-one surveys of researchers in various scientific disciplines shows that whereas only 2 per cent admitted fudging their data, 28 per cent claimed to know colleagues who did.

Science will never live up to its claims of being self-correcting until scientists are able to admit their mistakes:  as Bruce Alberts, then editor of Science, recently testified before Congress, scientists  “need to develop a value system where simply moving on from one’s mistakes without publicly acknowledging them severely damages, rather than protects, a scientific reputation.”

But the idea that scientists don’t make mistakes is part of the arrogance endemic to the Western worldview– expressed by DNA co-discoverer James Watson’s question, “If we do not play God, who will?” This question has nothing to do with science and everything to do with cultural values that cast humans as dominators of the natural world—a trend in Western thought longstanding as it is unfortunate.  Ancient Greeks termed unwarranted human arrogance hubris –and their literature is full of examples in which hubris fated human downfall.

“Playing God” with the natural world has brought us to our current condition—in which every natural system on earth is in decline. It is neither science nor wisdom to cling to a worldview with such results.

Other values inherited from our current culture contribute to the ineffectiveness of science’s self-correcting mechanisms.   Studies replicating previous work are rarely funded. Researchers generally assume that replication is done with those with a “bone to pick”– the characteristic interpretation in a culture based on the value of competition rather than cooperation.

Paul Woodruff’s Reverence offers an alternative to the arrogance that closes scientific minds– and the competitive stance that stops scientists from admitting and learning from their own mistakes.  He details how wise historical traditions have cultivated reverence toward other lives as a means of combating  tyranny and authoritarianism.  Reverence facilitates the opening to the world essential to good science expressed by McClintock’s “listening to the corn” and Strum’s getting to know baboons as individuals making their own choices.

The indigenous value of acknowledgement discussed by Oneida elder Joanne Shenandoah, also pays homage to the value of other lives:  “We acknowledge their worth, acknowledge that we are equal with the woodland, the trees, the berries, the two-legged and the four-legged. We share the same air, space, and water.”

I can only imagine how our science might evolve if it held such acknowledgement of the world it hopes to know.

This would certainly prompt us to replace human arrogance with an appropriate dose of humility—and to make self-reflection an essential part of good science. After all, if science is based on observation, shouldn’t we know as much as possible about the observer?  Indeed, Nobel Prize winning physicist Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, indicates that a physicist’s expectations change the physical outcome of an experiment.

Heisenberg ‘s observations were focused on the arena of quantum dynamics, but philosopher David Hume, termed by the Stanford philosophy site “the most important philosopher ever to write in English”,  argues that there is no such thing as scientific certainty period.

Hume notes that scientific methodology develops its theories from observed experience.  Such theories can only be only our best guess at the way the world works—that is, they are hypotheses that give us probability rather than certainty. As in a coin toss, we can predict the chance that heads rather than tails will come up. We can elaborate the things impinging on the outcome.  We can even assign a statistic to that outcome.

But no matter how many times we toss the coin, we cannot say for certain that heads will be our next result. The issue of significance in scientific research is intimately intertwined with judging probability.

Unfortunately, this is not something with which enough scientists are familiar.  In 2005 John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist from Stanford University showed why, as a matter of statistical analysis, “most published research findings are probably false.”

In other ways, as well, science is constitutionally incapable of knowing everything about our world.  But if we base our science on careful observation, along with a critical assessment of our perceptions and values and an understanding of the limits of our knowledge, we can do good science.

However, if we skip such critical self-assessment, we have the type of Monsanto-science that asserts that its genetic engineering is necessary to feed the world. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, genetically engineered soy seed actually produces less than its traditional counterpart.  The Monsanto claim also ignores the key issue of food distribution.  Indeed, Monsanto’s activities occasion the consolidation of small farms taken out of the hands of the hungry.

In general cultivation techniques in industrial agriculture that many term “progress” without evaluating what progress actually is– lead to the deterioration of global farmland in escalating use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and water.

In assessing the scientific claims for such agriculture, we might well consider Mark Twain’s caution:  “It’s not what he doesn’t know that worries me. It’s what he knows for certain that just ain’t so.”

Keeping our minds open to what we don’t “know for certain” helps compensate for our selective perception– illustrated by a video in which a group of students play basketball while a man in a gorilla suit walks through the scene. Viewers told beforehand to count the number of times the basketball bounces miss the presence of the gorilla entirely– as I myself did the first time I saw the film.

Distraction works.

Enough of the TV audience viewing drug ads fix their attention on people depicted in healthy poses to miss the voice-over rattling off a drug’s sometimes fatal side effects. And thus drug ads are commercially profitable despite the side effect listing.

We see what we expect to see. We also see what we are rewarded for seeing.  If we keep our eyes on the ball of career success, on corporate profits, on the prestige of science—or simply on the habits of our modern lifestyle—we easily miss the side effects of our choices.

Just as we need humility that honors the limits of our knowledge, we need a perspective that takes our whole interdependent world into account.

Assessing our values is the first step in doing good science.

Choosing our values is the next one.

We have considerable historical precedent to help us in making such choices. We can choose values that have accompanied human survival over thousands of years:  values such as humility, care, reverence, and thanksgiving– and get to know our world as a friend rather than a dominator.


See also

Why Science will Never Know Everything.


And for a profile of scientists who have done the right thing, working to share accurate information, see these personal profiles of of science “champions”.

This essay is copyright, 2013 by Madronna Holden.  Feel free to link to share. These are important issues to discuss.

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