Earth Day 2015: Creating Safe Spaces for Natural Life

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Essays and photos copyright by Madronna Holden

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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Wolves and the Wild: Expanding the Human Household

By Madronna Holden

“‘We are waiting for the wolves to answer. We want a healing, a cure for             anguish, a remedy that will heal the wound between us and the world that contains our broken histories.”

—  Linda Hogan,  “Deify the Wolf”


Pioneers in the Willamette Valley gathered in the so-called Wolf Meetings” to establish a territorial government.  Why this label?  Given their personal disagreements, the pioneers  failed to create a common government.  But the one thing they did agree on was the extermination of local wolves.

In those days, in the words of PBS’s “The Wolf that Changed America”, wolves “were the very embodiment of America’s vanishing wilderness”.  That wilderness was vanishing according to the rubric of Manifest Destiny, which saw both wild creatures and indigenous peoples fated to fade away before the onslaught of ” civilization”.

The tale of Little Red Riding Hood, reflects this view in children’s terms.  Here the wolf represents the savage wilderness, and Red Riding Hood the naïve girl-child delighted by birdsong and flowers, who puts herself in mortal danger because she has not yet learned to fear the land and its creatures– and must thus be saved by the huntsman. This fairytale dates from Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries —the heyday of the colonial takeover of the Americas.

But there are notable exceptions to the image of the wolf as mythical evil: as the in case of wolf hunter Ernest Seton turned environmentalist explored in the PBS documentary above.  The intelligence of a particular wolf, his communications with the wolf hunter, his self-possession and dignity—and finally, his dying loyalty to his mate—all moved the wolf hunter to see the world entirely differently.  Indeed, we might say this wolf domesticated Seton—if, tragically, at the cost of his own life.

Seton spent the remainder of his life fighting to save habitat where wild creatures might have a natural home.  He helped persuade Theodore Roosevelt to preserve US wilderness and founded the Boy Scouts—in line with his belief that humans needed intimacy with the wild.

Willamette Valley Kalapuya elder Esther Stutzman relates how wolf skins brought in for bounty to the trading post at Scottsburg, Oregon, were stacked in shoulder high piles before being pushed into the Umpqua River to dispose of them. We can only imagine what this meant for those whose origin story told how First Woman entrusted her children to the care of Mother Wolf when she went out to discover her land.  First Woman found her children well cared for on her return.

Mother Wolf thus gave human children an experience of the natural world as family. We might well follow this model of learning from the natural world that succors us.  And we might hope to do so in a way that does not require the death of other natural creatures as happened with Seton’s wolf-hunting.

Mary Tallmountain spoke a telling poetic acknowledgement to the “last wolf”who made its way through the  “ruined city” to lay its muzzle on the hospital bed where she battled cancer. “Yes”, she told the wolf, “I know what they have done”.

What they had done was wage a war of extermination on wolves and their wild kin. Shortly after the “Wolf Meetings”, wolves were largely gone from Willamette Valley– though there were a few hold-outs in wilderness areas until the last wolf in Oregon was killed for bounty in 1947.

But the wolf gone from official records was not gone from sight.  There were mysterious wolf sightings long after this, as in the gray wolf sighted in the Opal Creek Wilderness half a century later.  As wolves will do, this creature would stand and look back at a human for a moment before it turned to vanish.

I don’t know anything more about the wolf at Opal Creek. Young wolves generally disperse about 40-80 miles, but they have gone as far as 500 miles to find a new family.  Until they find their family, in turn, they cannot realize their nature as a wolf.  It was a wolf’s fierce loyalty to his  mate that caused Seton to write WHY? in his journal with respect to his own actions —and to turn from wolf killer to wolf protector.

He is not alone in this change.  According to a recent US survey 74 per cent of US citizens now agree that the wolf should have a place in natural ecosystems. The Nez Perce did not need a survey to determine their own opinions on this: they offered their land as a site for wolf reintroduction– and then held a ceremony to welcome the wolves back.

Among the 26 per cent who do not favor the wolf’s comeback are ranchers who see their livestock at risk with that return. Tactics to support both the ranchers and the wolves are being worked out in the wake of Oregon’s “no kill” court ruling. One side effect of this process is that humans are spending more time with the domesticated animals they raise for meat– since the primary method to inhibit wolf killings of this type is human presence.

Now we are also learning more about wolves–and thus how to treat them according to their own nature.  A recent editorial in the Oregonian concurred with the Fish and Wildlife’s decision to kill two yearling lamb-killing wolves that refused to be relocated and were roaming without a pack.  That editorial also argued we should not be killing wolves in the wilderness who are doing what wolves naturally do.

There is much to learn about wolves’ essential roles in ecosystems:  observations of reintroduced wolves in the Yellowstone indicate their presence fosters the return of aspen groves, changing the way elk graze—higher up on the branches, so they can keep a lookout.  Wolf kills also feed at least twelve other species—not counting insects.

Even in the Red Riding Hood story, there is embedded an older memory of wolf as kin—indicated by his dressing in the clothes of the young girl’s beloved grandmother.  Though the moral of this fairy tale is the foolishness of such a guise, there are those who find a different moral—and a different possibility—in our relationship with wolves.

As Chickasaw Linda Hogan sees it, the wolf is “a relative inside our own blood, an animal so equal to us that it reflects back what we hate and love about ourselves.”

Indigenous peoples are not alone in this view.  In a much older European story than that of Red Riding Hood, twins suckled by a wolf founded Rome.

Here we find two contrasting stories of domestication. In the one humans domesticate the wild by setting it under human control—and in the other humans and wild creatures share the common household of earth. In this latter view wild  creatures domesticate us as much as we domesticate them.

Paul Shepard’s thesis is that the latter has been the predominant type of domestication– whether humans realize it or not.   He argues that though humans assume they are domesticating animals and plants, the latter are really domesticating humans, since they have changed our humanity over time so we might accommodate them in our lives.

We are all too familiar with the contrasting idea of  domestication as control, which affects both what industrial societies consider wild and what they consider feminine.  In this framework, both women and wolves according to Clarrisa Estes, “have been hounded, harassed, and falsely imputed to be devouring and devious.”

We presume to own what we thus domesticate even as we presume to control it:  thus genetically engineered lives are patented by their designers.

But in the older view of domestication, both the wolf and the feminine are empowered by their wildness: by their intuition, their attention to detail—and most of all, their loyalty to family (a family that extends to all natural lives)—and their protection of their children with a singular fierceness.

In this view, humans are familial partners with the wild world, as illustrated by the case of lions who shared their kill with certain indigenous peoples of South Africa, and the dolphins who fished with the indigenous peoples of Australia– a practice initiated by the dolphins.

This view of domestication is not about taming the wild, but in the apt terms of ethnobotanist M. Kat Anderson, about tending the wild.  Rather than shrinking the lives of other species into an arena controlled by humans, this type of domestication seeks to extend human consciousness to embrace the whole of the natural world as family.

There were the wild hedgerows in indigenous farms in Peru, and peasant farms in England and Eastern Europe—where hedgerows both fed and provided habitat to other species and provided a reservoir of learning for the farmers.  They obtained many seed varieties from them, for instance.

Here there is no line drawn between the “weeds” that are not under human control and a single plant chosen by humans. Indeed, research published this month supports Vandana Shiva’s observation that the plants declared “weeds” in agribusiness monocultures constitute essential nutritional, medicinal, and material (e.g. housing and basket making) resources for indigenous farmers.

Instead of attacking biodiversity to bolster the one seed or one animal—or part of an animal as in the case of genetic engineering—humans favor at the moment, the Kalapuya who sustained themselves for at least six thousand years in place, fostered an abundant diversity of local animals and crops–such that their valley was known as the “gourmand’s paradise” by early European explorers for its abundance of available food.

Kalapuya also echoed the practice of the wolf in their hunting:  early pioneers near Albany witnessed native hunters surround a herd and conscientiously let its strongest animals go before their took their own kill.

Wherever humans have lived they have interacted with and thus changed the natural world.  They have taken what they need for survival, as do all natural creatures.  But there is more than one way than one way to do this.  We can attempt to bring other lives under our control, making monocultures of our favorites—and declaring war on all other natural lives as we erase natural habitats.

Or we can embrace other natural lives as our kin—expanding our sense of family to all natural life.  Creatures that share our gardens, our farms, our cities, and our houses—as well as the habitats we dedicate to them—take us, in Hogan’s words, “across the boundaries of ourselves,”  teaching us the language of life which may yet sustain us.

Why We Shouldn’t Root for Light to Overcome Darkness

By Madronna Holden

You don’t need a script to identify the hero in classic Western movies. He is the man on the white horse wearing a white hat.  The villain, by contrast, is a shadowy character dressed in black–associated in every other way with darkness, as well.

Though in other cultures, black is the color of fertility–the soil, after all is dark—and the richest soil is the darkest. But banishing the dark has come to be a metaphor for the triumph of knowledge over ignorance—as well as goodness over– in certain societies and religions.  In such worldviews, transformation of darkness into the “light” is the metaphor for righting one’s spirit.

It is not incidental that many such religions also value transcendence from earthly life and control through intellect or will– rather than mystery.

There are other destructive consequences of this view.  In many cultures who believe in the triumph of light over dark,  dark skin in humans is also the ground for racism. And those with the lightest skin are given the most social privilege.

But the actual triumph of light over dark would lead to the collapse of the physical universe. Physicists have discovered that “dark matter” makes up most of the matter in that universe, echoing the words of a native Plains Indian elder decades ago that it is empty space between things that allow humans to make their choices. It seems the universe may operate on the same principle, with dark matter being the birth home of the stars and planets.

The balance of light and dark, in my Parabola essay, “Light who Loves her Sister Darkness, not the overcoming of dark with light, is the way of the way of the natural world and its of seasons and days here on earth. Peasants who worked the soil understood this in the European Middle Ages, where folk religion held up the Black Madonna as an icon in art and worship.

But in industrial society, we are losing the balance of light and dark, in both perception and pragmatics. Since the invention of the light bulb, we have designed more and more effective lighting.  In modern cities humans light up the skies for twenty-four hours, extending work days and not incidentally, announcing to the natural world as a whole that humans are present.

So what is wrong with that?

For one thing, there are substantial savings in energy costs in cutting back on over-lighting and misdirected lighting.

A number of municipalities have initiated “dark skies initiatives” which both save on energy and cut light pollution that obscures the stars and confuses migrating animals as well as playing havoc with human biorhythms.  Such initiatives encourage the directing of light downward, onto the surfaces where it is needed, rather than up into the skies, where it scatters on dust participles to become light bubbles that obscure the night sky for hundreds of miles beyond major cities.

In New York City, for instance, a park was recently designed using lighting directed entirely downward where it would be of the most use to humans using that park at night.  And from above, the night still looks like the night.

Some believe that night lighting is a matter of safety and the brighter the better. Perhaps this harkens back to the safety of the fire ring in ancient human camps. But though light has arguably deterred crime in certain urban areas, there is some debate over this issue.   I spoke with a local policeman in Eugene, Oregon who believed the opposite:  he observed that bright lighting may light the way for a potential thief, who may well be daunted by an area that is mysterious to him or her.

In any event, as a recent New York City park proves, there is another way to light things up.

But setting aside the issues of energy saving and safety for the moment, why should we try to protect the darkness? For one thing, it is a kindness to other species that use the light of the stars (or the starlight reflected on the ocean) to navigate by. Millions (yes, that’s right) of birds die each year in collisions with lighted buildings at night, misdirected by the light that historically guided their migrations.

The Natural Resources Defense Council did an experiment in which they left half their office building in New York City unlit—and found fifty per cent fewer birds were killed in collisions with that building as a result.  A sad parallel tale is that of turtles who hatch on the sands of South Florida and migrate to the sea.  They have only a short time to get their heading and find their way into the water before they are caught by predators.  Their life and death flight was cued by starlight on the ocean.  But today they head in the opposite direction– straightaway for city lighting which obscures the more subtle starlight on the water.

It is a kindness to ourselves as well if we more often allow the natural cycles of light and dark to guide our body rhythms.  Researchers intrigued by the fact that breast cancer rates were higher among those who worked night shifts put cancer cells in a petri dish and found that those exposed to artificial light grew faster than those exposed to the regular day/night cycles.

Without darkness, our bodies cannot produce and replenish key hormones that keep up healthy.

The words of astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson give us something to ponder: “When you look at the night sky, you realize how small we are within the cosmos. It’s kind of a resetting of your ego. To deny yourself of that state of mind, either willingly or unwittingly, is to not live to the full extent of what it is to be human.”

When our lights blot out the stars, we lose perspective on our place in the cosmos. We easily become egocentric as well as anthropocentric when we dwell only in the bubbles of light we have created, rather than in the  nature’s vast universe of proportion and mystery.

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I highly recommend the award-winning documentary, The City Dark, which makes many of the concrete points above. For a wealth of  information on health issues flowing from over-lighting, criteria for proper lighting and the energy savings that follow—as well as model “dark skies initiatives”–see the International Dark Sky Association website.

The Trouble with Progress

By Madronna Holden

In his classic work, The Death of Ramón González, Angus Wright analyzes how contemporary corporate agriculture undermines human health, local economies, and the environment. He points out that even short term productivity of modern “super” crops relies on extensive pesticide, fertilizer and water inputs that are unsustainable in most global climates.  According to the World Health Organization, the pesticides used in this type of farming are responsible for 20,000 reported fatal poisonings a year –and many times that which are not reported. They are also a prominent  cause of the current cancer epidemic.

But even as Wright details the ruthlessness with which agri-business maintains its profits in the face of unfortunate technological strategies, he observes that there are alternative technologies that do not poison our air, food, and water, erode soil, or undermine ecological and economic systems.  Agri-business might just as well profit from these.

So why make bad choices—and pursue them with vehemence?  The crux of the issue, Wright proposes, is the worldview that holds progress in such esteem.  “Progress”, the GE saying famously had it, “Is our most important product”.  But the same worldview that elevates progress in this way never critically examines it. It loosely equates “progress”  with “advancement”, continuing the legacy of Francis Bacon, who asserted that humanity’s purpose is to control nature through science—and anything that humans invent to do this is good.

But when we equate progress with anything humans come up with, we wind up with methods of food production that have so many disastrous results.

Indeed, there is considerable tragedy to unexamined notions of advancement. Throughout history, conquerors asserted they were bringing progress to “backward” societies as they took over their lands.

Today the notion that industrial technologies are progressive as a matter of course licenses one-size-fits-all development that too often subjects third world peoples to debt, cultural disintegration, and ecological ruin. The assumption that industrial nations are more advanced than others inhibits both our partnerships with non-industrialized peoples and our acceptance of alternative technologies tested for centuries on local landscapes.

The destructive consequences of this logic haunts our own society us as well.  According to social historian Ulrech Beck, technology becomes our fate when we accept it without evaluation. That is, when undefined “progress” is considered good per se, we don’t get to choose it, we just have to figure out how to deal with its results.

This lack of critical perspective on progress and the technologies under its umbrella twists perceptions of reality—as in Monsanto’s response to the decimation of its BT corn from pests gaining resistance to its  engineered corn within three generations.  Responding to reports from scientists in Iowa that BT corn fell over in the fields from root damage, Monsanto denied it happened. There is a parallel dynamic with Monsanto’s assertion that its gmo seeds are “high yield”, in spite of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report, “Failure to Yield”, which shows just how far such crops fall short of the mark.

Biotech ads asserting that we can’t feed the world without their technologies only work in the context of a worldview which assumes new technologies yield positive results without seriously evaluating them.  Farmers are not the only ones to whom such bogus progress is sold.  Consumer gadgetry hawked on the basis of its being new technology adds to the burgeoning consumerism that is ravaging our planet.

And tragically, a worldview that sets up unexamined “progress” as its shining light also gives its manufacturers dispensation from moral responsibilities. This is an essential historical lesson derived from Wright’s analysis of industrialized agriculture.  If our worldview did not sanction progress in the way that it does, agribusiness would not have this ground with which to license their attacks on presumably “backward” forces that challenge their profits.

The logic involved in fighting such challenges is exhibited in Monsanto’s decades-long battle against the labeling of genetically engineered foods.  Labeling gmo foods, the head of a Monsanto subsidiary stated in 1994, is tantamount to putting  a skull and crossbones on them. (Kansas City Star, March 7).

Such an argument only carries weight if one assumes that manufacturers have the right to impose a new technology on consumers in spite of their resistance—that is, if biotech “advances” override democratic choice.

Monsanto’s fight against the public right to know parallels numerous other violations of justice, public health and the environment in the name of progress.  Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner document such egregious industry practices in their rigorously peer-reviewed Deceit and Denial, using industry’s own internal documents.

For instance, they detail how the lead industry used notions of progress to create an Orwellian double think, in which the very thing that is supposed to make our children’s lives better—progress—winds up destroying their intelligence as well as their health.  Thus there were those ads claiming that lead solder used to seal baby formula cans was a modern technology supporting babies’ health.  Even though industry knew better from its own research, the assertion of progress–and protection of profit–  trumped their ethical choices.

Indeed, when a worldview with an unexamined idea of progress operates in an economic system that rewards profit however it is gained, there results moral as well as environmental disasters. There is, for instance, the case of plastics manufacturers in the 1950s.   At the same time that they boasted that their plastics were the wave of the future, industry leaders had in hand x-rays of the dissolving bones of the workers who manufactured them. Their response was to hide this data not only from the public in general but from the effected workers.

Historically, coal mining, asbestos, steel smelting, lead, vinyl chloride and pesticides industries, among others, have likewise hidden data documenting the disastrous effects of their products on workers, local communities and the environment—sometimes for decades. When such information finally did become public and irrefutable, these industries told the public such negative effects were the necessary price of progress.

I would assert, however, that no society can call itself advanced if its “progress” undercuts justice, community power, quality of life and self-determination for some in order to create profit for others.  Nor can any technology that undercuts the sources of all life by destroying natural systems rightly be termed advanced.

The European Union has a better handle on technological advancement. It puts  health before profit through the precautionary principle which mandates that manufacturers certify a new chemical harmless before it is released into the public domain.  If we were to institute this principle in the US, industry might attend to more land-friendly food production,  just as historically they might have paid attention to a non-toxic gasoline additive discovered—and ignored– as ethyl lead became the additive they pursued.

Indeed, if we had more of an eye to the social and environmental effects of our choices, we might not now be getting around in gas-fueled vehicles with all the attendant problems of climate change. There have been alternatives to this single-car system from the start– alternatives attacked by General Motors, who was only belatedly fined for undermining the street car systems in major cities.

Progress becomes our most destructive product when we don’t critically examine it—but it might be our most beneficial product if we hold it to standards of social and economic justice and sustainability.  The GE commercial was right.  “Progress is our most important product”. This is the very reason it must not be our most unexamined product as well.

Please feel to pass on the information in this essay in whatever way you see fit.

 

Wangari Maathai 1940-2011

By Madronna Holden

“You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.”

–Wangari Maathai

 Growing up in her Kikuyu village in the sight of Mt. Kenya, Wangari Maathai learned to revere that mountain as the glacial source of rivers and rain that sustained her land and people.  When her people climbed that peak, they walked barefoot out of reverence, for they felt they were approaching the realm of God.

Heaven, Maathai asserted, is right here, in our lives and the presence of the other lives of all species that share the earth. Thus the Kikuyu recognized the presence of divinity on the mountain.  As long as the people looked up and saw the clouds on the top of Mt. Kenya (that mountain, Maathai wrote, is a “shy mountain” and usually covered), they knew they could rely on the rains to come and the rivers to run full.

That reliance has grown shakier as the glaciers recede with climate change and logging denudes the land.  Maathai asserted that the land does not like to be “naked” in this way.  It wants to be covered with green life: with the trees that also yield protection for water resources, food, firewood and building materials for local villages. By tradition, her Kikuyu people never cut the streamside trees whose roots protected the abundance and clarity of precious water resources.

From her culture, especially as passed on to her from her grandfather, Professor Wangari Maathai of Nairobi University, the first African woman to hold a Nobel Prize and the first person to earn that prize as an environmentalist, learned to look at the mountain and “understand the future”.  Her reverence for the mountain motivated her work in the Greenbelt Movement, along with her continued emphasis on the relationship between social and environmental justice for the people of Kenya– as she  emphasized in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

In 1977, she founded the Greenbelt Movement, ultimately responsible for planting 47 million trees in Africa and billions of trees worldwide. Such planting was primarily the work of poor women carefully tending and watering their trees.

Without culture, Maathai wrote, humans have no real security in the world and easily succumb to the lure of material goods as a short term “fix”. It is a poor substitute for real security.  Maathai acknowledges there are negative things in some African cultures—but also positive ones that counteract the colonial assertions of African “backwardness”.  Essential among these is the ways in which traditional peoples know how to sustain their lives and health of their lands together.

As the current tribute to her life on the website of the Greenbelt Movement states, Wangari Maathai’s experience increasingly supported her view that “poverty and environmental destruction” were intertwined with “deeper issues of disempowerment, bad governance, and a loss of the values that had enabled communities to sustain their land and livelihoods, and what was best in their cultures”.

Founding and guiding the Greenbelt Movement that included over 900,000 African women was not always easy.  Maathai and other Greenbelt members were consistently jailed and harassed by the authoritarian regime of Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi.

Even as Maathai considered environmental protection and human justice intertwined, she continued to speak out for both.  At one point she was beaten unconscious by police in a demonstration seeking the release of political prisoners—a demonstration that ultimately resulted in the release of 51 men.

Even as leaders were by tradition accountable to their people, Maathai used her own social status to support the cause of justice, as when she co-founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative with five of her sister Nobel Laureates to advocate for peace, justice and equality worldwide.

It is with good reason that women were at the center of Maathai’s priorities as she developed ways to empower poor women globally.  Elected parliamentary representative after the demise of the authoritarian Moi regime, Nobel Laureate, professor at Nairobi University (the first woman to assume that position), winner of the Order of the Rising Sun (Japan, 2009), the Legion D’Honneur (France, 2006), and Elder of the Golden Heart and Elder of the Burning Spear (Kenya, 2004, 2003), the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights (2007), the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights Lifetime Achievement Award (2006), the Sophie Prize (2004), the Goldman Prize (1991), the Right Livelihood Award (1984), and honorary doctorates from Yale University and Morehouse College in the U.S., Ochanomizu University in Japan, and the University of Norway, Maathai still could not obtain a divorce from her husband who protested that she was “too outspoken for a woman”. Indeed, she was jailed for criticizing the judge who failed to grant her that divorce.

From the time that as a child Maathai lived in terror of the crushing violence of colonial authorities putting down the Mau Mau insurgence, Maathai experienced firsthand the effects of such violence on women and children.  Still she was tireless in enacting her vision even in the face of such violence. “Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times”, Maathai wrote, “But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do.”

Sadly, the world has just lost this remarkable leader though ovarian cancer. But in her 71 years on this earth, she left a powerful legacy.  Her example is a distinctive one for meeting the environmental and social crises we currently face.

She taught us the importance of holding to our vision in the face of overwhelming odds—even as she worked in her own life to supplant the violence levied against her and the earth with compassion and justice.

Maathai modeled the way in which a simple act such as planting and caring for a tree can give poor women their power back at the same time that it can change the world for the better. And multiplied in community, such an act can become billions strong.

The roots of the billions of trees newly planted in Wangari Maathai’s wake are testimony to the hope and persistence that each of us might express in our lives, wherever and whoever we are.

————————

I want to acknowledge my former student Julie Bovett for emailing me about the sad fact of Wangari Maathai’s passing.

Why Genetically Engineered Foods Won’t Feed the World

By Madronna Holden

updated 3.2.13

Biotech advertising, such as Monsanto’s, tells us that genetically engineered foods are the way to feed our burgeoning human population. But we don’t have a problem with food production; in fact, we are vastly over-producing food– especially corn– which is why subsidies are necessary to keep large farms in business in the US. The underlying problem of feeding the world is not production, but access, as the documentary The Future of Food points out.

Both the The Future of Food and Bread for the World analyze the ways in which development has pushed subsistence farmers from their land, increasing world hunger.

Moreover, gmo foods require substantial amounts of chemical and water inputs, which not only empty the pockets of poor farmers, but deplete soil in all areas, but especially in marginal areas where local food production and protecting local water sources is most crucial.

As the Future of Food also points about, actual third-party research on gmo foods contradicts biotech’s claim. In gmo soy, for instance, root systems are reduced by twenty-five per cent compared to previously used  non-gmo soy, radically curtailing production. Moreover, many farmers report that gmo soy is inferior to regular soy with respect to its nitrogen-fixing characteristics. The Union of Concerned Scientists’  report, Failure to Yield gives an overview of the data on gmo food production, which has a very poor record indeed.

Indeed, just this month (February 2013), a news item in the Farmer’s Weekly indicated that US farmers may well stop purchasing genetically engineered seeds because of the poor performance of gmo crops globally.

Recently there are reports that bt corn engineered to carry the bt toxin to prevent insect damage is only successful in the short term–since after three generations insects have become immune to bt, according to Iowa researchers. This has other repercussions, since bt has been used selectively and successfully on non-gmo crops before its wholesale use in Monsanto’s product. Hastened resistance will take this product (a bacterial infection previously certified for use on organics) out of this crop-growing arsenal.

The primary place of the profit motive in gmo production is indicated by Monsanto’s relentless suit against Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser for growing gmo crops that he never purchased– but which migrated into his fields though wind pollination.  The real issue for Monsanto was apparently the fact that Schmeiser was saving his own non gmo seed and distributing it to his neighbors, thus cutting into Monsanto’s market.  If this was only in a small way, it was not a precedent Monsanto wanted to go unchallenged.

In parallel fashion, Monsanto went after poor East Indian women who were grinding local oil seed and selling it on street corners to support their families.  It got the World Trade Organization to pressure the Indian government to shut down these small vendors  as competition with the gmo soy oil that Monsanto was selling to the Indian market.

After years of legal battles, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs, Schmeiser himself finally won the right to demand that Monsanto clean his field of the unwanted crops rather than paying for the presence of gmo varieties in that field.

But the fight was devastating to the farmer.  At one point Monsanto’s suit compelled  Schmeiser to destroy one thousand pounds of soy seed that he had developed over several decades.

The inability to control migration of gmo  materials is centrally  implicated in this story. Such gene migration is poorly understood and only poorly controlled. In this context, Monsanto’s “terminator gene”, engineered to make its seed sterile (so as to assure it needs to be re-purchased by farmers each succeeding season)  is certainly worrisome.

British farmers, for instance, traditionally left hedgerows of rapeseed (which crosses with soy) and other wild crops to feed birds and insects that helped pollinate their fields– and provide some diversity in their own crops though wild seeds.  The fact that gmo-seed might contaminate such hedgerows was a serious enough fear to cause British farmers to burn test plots of gmo seeds when they were first planted locally.  Later a farmer’s movement in India did the same.

The Indian farmers had more than one reason for doing so. Vandana Shiva indicates that Monsanto’s hawking of gmos to Indian farmers is linked with the recent tragic suicide rate among these farmers, who purchase seed they can scarcely afford and then go bankrupt when it fails to yield, even with environmentally as well as economically expensive inputs of water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

In fact, even consumers who have no health or environmental concerns about genetically engineered foods may well wish to avoid them on grounds of boycotting Monsanto’s corporate tactics.  Monsanto was voted the worst corporation of the year in 2010 and 2012 in the public vote held by Corporate Accountability International–which placed Monsanto in its “hall of shame”  . Monsanto was cited  “for mass producing cancer causing chemicals”.  Not only does it produce bovine growth hormone tied to reproductive system cancers (see below), it has corporate links with the companies that produce the pesticides its gmo crops–such as “RoundUp Ready” products are engineered to take more of.

Importantly, Corporate Accountability also cited Monsanto’s practice of “aggressively running small farms out of business, and recklessly promoting seeds that exacerbate food scarcity globally”. Click here to take action against Monsanto’s attempts to gain immunity from federal laws protecting human health and the environment.

As for the science of gmos themselves, they  may look flashy, but they indicate the dangers of doing something (splicing genes) without really understanding the consequences of this process.  According to a former student of mine, working for a biotech firm turned him into a supporter of organics, given the sloppy methods he saw in the labs where he worked.  Gene splicing was done haphazardly using “junk dna”  in the hope that it might yield something of use–and the debris from experiments were thrown out in such a way that local wildlife ingested it.

The European Union has steadfastly refused to allow gmo foods to be sold there— turning away the importation of all US products containing gmos. Unfortunately, the US recently filed a protest of this policy with the World Trade Organization to force the EU to accept all US imports. The WTO ruled in the US favor, since economics, not health, is its principle concern.

In the wake of this decision, EU nations have launched extensive campaigns to label gmo  foods to give their consumers a chance to avoid them. Monsanto lobbyists have forestalled such labeling in the US, since their public opinion polls  shows that labeling would cut into their profits. Not incidentally, many of the same polls show that the US public is overwhelming in favor of labeling such products.


Health questions about GMOS

Though there is no definitive research at to whether an upsurge in adult-onset food allergies is linked to the concurrent rise of GMOs,  ingesting grains in which foreign genes have been inserted has triggered digestive upsets in certain individuals. And those allergic to Brazil nuts or peanuts may be allergic to GMO foods in which genes from these nuts have been inserted.

There is also enough data linking cancer and hormone disruption to genetically engineered bovine growth hormone to cause the EU, Japan, Australia and Canada to ban its use because of potential human harm.  In Oregon, a campaign led by a Portland doctor against this hormone motivated farmers to reject it.

Tips for avoiding GMOs

Produce 

Once upon a time (in the early 1990s) produce growers agreed to add an “8” before a four digit produce code to indicate that produce had been genetically engineered.  (Example 94011 for organic bananas would become 84011 for genetically engineered bananas).  However, industry did not follow through on this and today the only way to largely guarantee that you are not consuming genetically engineered food is to buy organic.  Instead Monsanto has been involved in a pitched legal battle to avoid labeling their gmo products– to the extent that they have threatened to sue Vermont if their legislature passes a gmo labeling law.

Organic produce is “largely” free of genetically engineered components, but not totally so because of some gene drift– especially with corn– in adjacent fields.

Other Foods

Buy organic:

Organic foods labeled “USDA organic” are not currently allowed to contain GMO products despite Monsanto’s intensive political pressure to change this. There is one unfortunate exception (and there may be more as gmo contamination grows): so much yellow corn used for ethanol production is gmo that it has contaminated yellow corn seed and organic yellow corn can no longer be guaranteed to be gmo free. This is a special tragedy to farmers in Central America who have developed traditionally diverse corn stocks– and now see them contaminated by gmos.

Buy Oregon milk and milk products:

In a move that should be more widely publicized, Oregon dairy farmers made a joint pact to avoid the use of the genetically-engineered bovine growth hormone.

Avoid processed food:

Ninety per cent of all processed food in the US contains GMOs.

Be especially careful of soy products:

The vast majority of non-organic soy is now genetically engineered. This is a special problem with infant formula containing soy.

A number of food producers and distributors have signed on to non-gmo pledges:

Here is a pdf to download listing such producers and distributors.

Scientific analysis of gmo problems

The Union of Concerned Scientist’s report, “Failure to Yield” is here (thanks to Lance Search de Lopez for reminding me of this link).

There is a list of papers authored by scientists on the problems with gmo release into the environment here. Some of these include cancer and allergy risk of ingestion, negative influences on seed stocks and farmer choices (including yield), contamination of non-target crops, harm to natural biodiversity, corporate as opposed to science-driven choices (and thus questionable research on gmo safety), and ignorance about the mechanisms by which gmo gene splicing works.

There are also well-considered guidelines for gmo research and release into the environment drawn up in line with the Swiss constitution supporting the “dignity of creation”. Needless to say, these are not currently being followed by the biotech industry.

Please feel to pass on the information in this essay in whatever way you see fit.

Guidelines for Sustainable Technology

 This graphic (too appropriate to pass up) is from http://connexionsandcontradictions.blogspot.com/ (check it out)

Technology: Neither Savior nor Villain but Choice

By Madronna Holden

Since Francis Bacon, the father of modern science, declared that humans should do things because they can do them, our technology has taken on a double life as hero and villain. On the one hand technology is the hero in the story of progress, in which it assumes the power to shelter us, feed us, and extend our lifespan.  In this heroic guise, technology conquers nature and harnesses it to human ends.

However,  to conquer nature we must not only conquer our natural selves but override the natural order.  Technology conceived under this worldview has led to climate instability, the destruction of vast quantities of ocean life, toxic releases into our environment and accompanying cancer epidemics, persistent loss of soil fertility in industrial farming, and loss of the biodiversity that underlies the resilience of natural systems.

In the face of such crises, some resort to denial—denying that human actions contribute to climate change, for instance. Media financed by corporations dependent on current technologies have a hand in this:  whereas a recent review of peer-reviewed papers in science journals found 97 per cent of them took climate change as a given and focused on tactics to deal with it, over forty per cent of media stories in the same period focused on climate change “skepticism”–giving the impression of doubt in the scientific community that does not exist.

Such publicity also supports the idea that we can fix our problems with more of the same:  fantastic technologies to set mirrors in space to control the sunlight falling to earth, for instance.  It presents technology as eventually winning out if we just keep at it.  By this reasoning, it is okay to amass nuclear waste on faith that some generation in the future will figure out what to do with it.

In the context of overwhelming environmental crises, by contrast, many see technology as a villain.  They would return to a time “before technology”.

But technology itself is nothing more or less than a tool.  In fact, we became human through the technology of culture: by passing down our knowledge and experience between generations.  There is no human society without technology to return to.

And importantly, conceived as either hero or villain, technology is both larger than life—and impervious to choice.

Sustainable Technology Guidelines

In his historical analysis of modern technology, Ulrich Beck  argues that when we create technology without designing standards for it. the very technology that was meant to free us becomes a kind of fate– spiraling out of control. 

We must remedy this by choosing the kinds of  technology we will accept in order to fulfill the UN’s classic definition of sustainability: that the current generation of humans meet its needs without compromising the ability of succeeding generations to meet theirs.  As Amy Kocourek indicates in her comment here, this brings up the important issue of our definition of need.  Sustainable technology can never meet the needs of ourselves and of future generations if it seen as simply a new way to maintain the consumerist society we currently have.

Here are my suggestions for the criteria on which we might base that choice.

  • Sustainable technology must put us in touch with the results of our actions

Using a tool in the dark is dangerous for both ourselves and our world. Too often, technology (the food processing industry, modern sewage systems) disguises our relationship to the natural lives upon which we rely– and the results of our actions on these.

The contrast between the technology that distances us from the results of our actions and technology which brings us closer to them is illustrated by the difference between the “readiness to harm”  flowing from the invisibility of nuclear hazards outlined by  Arjun Makhijani,  and Siletz Takelma elder Grandma Aggie’s technology of story, which brings us face to face with the effects of our actions on other species and other nations.  In the one case, dangerous technologies spring up in the breach between our action and our perception: in the other, technology fosters the careful observation and compassionate care that led to sustainable indigenous practices persisting for thousands of years.

Though it is unlikely that each of us would be able to become experts in the range of technologies used by our current society, this rule implies public transparency of an industry’s processes.  There is a reason why Polyface Farm, with its emphasis on sustainability with its careful modeling on natural system, places transparency as its first principle, and by contrast, the commercial US meat-packing industry fought not merely  to keep visitors out of its premises, but to keep pictures of its processes private.

Knowing what goes on in the technology that produces our food or energy tends to lead to more responsible– and healthful– choices. This rule is related to the public’s right to know, following current  right to know initiatives like that in Eugene, Oregon, which requires business reporting of toxic releases.  Over time, such data allows for the analysis of environmental effects of particular chemicals.  It also motivates businesses to become leaders in developing and using processes that they are proud to showcase:  as in the case of Forrest Paint in Eugene, which has become a national leader in recapture of chemicals in paint manufacturing and re-constitution and re-use of leftover paint products.

(Thanks to my student Neyssa Hays whose comment below reminded me to draw out this guideline in further detail).

In using resources from natural systems, we must follow nature’s debit system.

Human technology is capable of increasing the long term abundance and fertility of natural systems by returning to them more than it takes, as illustrated by the indigenous botanical practices in the Pacific Northwest—or the restoration and recovery of lands in Bangladesh and Mexico though indigenous agricultural methods.

In contrast, industrial agriculture is highly unsustainable in its failure to pay its natural debts.  Soil scientist Fred Magdoff details the negative feedback loop in which such agriculture compensates for the declining soil fertility it creates though injections of energy (chemical pesticides and fertilizers) from without.

There are many ways to be clever about this:  as in the recent idea for chemical-free pest management in rice fields that both raises soil fertility and cuts waste.

  • Sustainable technology must honor the limits of natural systems

Growth is an aspect of the natural world that expresses its fecundity.   But natural communities grow through transformation, exchange and creation of diversity—not by the accumulation of material goods in a way that toxifies, removes, or ties up the stuff of life away from its natural community.

We must grow within the context of natural systems: following the model of “natural capitalism”, for instance, we would conserve material resources and grow human ones such as knowledge and craft. The former are limited; the latter are not.

In honoring natural limits, sustainable technology must use renewable energy sources (this addition courtesy of Amanda Wilson) and/or put back what it draws from natural systems (courtesy of Brandt Hines).

  • Sustainable technology must be recognizable to natural systems and other natural lives

This is the primal wisdom of societies who saw all natural lives as their kin:  for hundreds of millions of years, ecological systems have developed in balance and concert so that all lives recognize each other in their physical make up, fitting together as the family of life.

Our technology must adapt itself to our natural family rather than expecting the chemistry and order of the natural world to adapt to us. . In referring to the living roofs, for instance, William McDonough says: “Imagine that you have a building that looks up into the sky, and the birds flying overhead can look down from the sky and say. ―Oh, it‘s our people – they‘re back! ‘ “

  • Sustainable technology must  follow the precautionary principle

The precautionary principle states that we must not release new technologies into the environment until they are proven safe. This reverses the usual practice in the contemporary US, in which chemicals, for instance, must be proven dangerous before we stop their release.

The precautionary principle is a way of extending our care into the future, as “fore-caring”. This principle honors human ingenuity with the faith that we can observe our world with care and act with finesse.

This is a principle of justice as well as ecology, which inhibits the creation of profit for some by transferring harm to others.

  • Any waste produced by sustainable technology must be food for natural life

This simply follows the model of natural systems in which waste produced by some always equals food for others.  This means that any heavy metals, etc., used by a particular technology must not be waste:  they must be safely re-captured and reused.

Whereas sustainable technology cannot turn food or energy into waste, it can do the opposite:  catalyze the turning of waste into food.  Bringing the leaves from my neighbors’ trees that our city would otherwise haul away onto my yard as food for the soil is an example.  The city of Olympia, Washington does this on a larger scale, hauling away all forms of kitchen and yard waste to a business contracted to turn it into compost.

  • Sustainable technology must foster biodiversity and thus natural resilience

Resilience is intimately linked to biodiversity through a simple bottom line: the more choices one has, the more options with which to survive stress.

In honoring diversity, technology should be specific to place, responding to the irreplaceable specificity of the land—and the lives of all species that have thrived on it.


What would you add to this list? Which particular technologies ought to be included or excluded on these grounds?

Jon Unger has suggested two additions that are linked to the social context of sustainable technology that have caused me to add two more ideas for consideration here:

  • Sustainable technology should be democratic in its  development, implementation and accessibility

If society does not choose its technologies, as stated at the beginning of this essay,  it becomes governed by them.  Technology that is readily understandable and user friendly  is key to being able to choose it– or reject it– according to its effects.   This is an issue central to the democratic nature of sustainable technology.

In the words of OSU student John Aldridge, “It is important that highly-industrialized nations recognize their moral obligation to pay their environmental dues” by making sure that the technological “help” they provide other nations passes the  “litnus  test”  of being environmentally sound, as well as being freely accepted by and  “consistent with the worldview of the receiver.

“Furthermore”,  Aldridge continues, “developers and distributors of technology should not market their tools as exclusive goods. If a nation is in need of a good, it should be available.”  This means, for instance, that patent laws should not stand in the way of health or environmental sustainability.  If developers and distributors do not wish to follow the model of Gaviotas and make their developments patent-free, they can at least avoid the actions of the pharmaceuticals who sued South Africa for patent infringement when it developed an inexpensive antibiotic to prevent infant deaths.

Further,  technological development must not infringe on other populations by using their DNA for genome research or their traditions for profit without their knowledge or economic compensation. In terms of patents in general, Vandana Shiva’s standards in the  “no patents on life” campaign is a good way to avoid patent abuses such as that in which a US firm patented the basmati rice that was developed in India– making it “illegal” for its own originators to use it without paying this firm.

  • Sustainable technology should be cost effective

Mr. Unger sees this as part of sustainable technology’s appeal to the “mass consumer”.  I see it as something more.  It is important that technology be available to the larger portion of humans rather than only to the upper or elite class. As the community of Gaviotas indicates in its refusal to patent any of its inventions, sustainable technology should be grounded in its values and effectiveness–in its use for all– rather than profit for a few.

To make technology cost effective, the US must cut its “perverse subsidies” that result, for example, in fresh local food raised organically and purchased locally being more costly than highly processed and packaged food transported over thousands of miles.

Without “perverse subsidies”, sustainable food production would be less costly (and thus more readily available to all), since it has lower costs of transportation, packaging, advertising, chemical and fossil fuel inputs, than does highly processed food. There is a parallel case to be made in the example of energy:  if we cut massive subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and price technology at its true environmental and health costs, other energy producing  technologies would be cost effective in comparison– including the most important energy producing tact of all– conservation. And since nuclear plants are so expensive to insure, they would never be built without their government subsidies.

As Laura Zeljeznjak notes in her comment below, another aspect of this cost-effectiveness is that sustainable technology should be cost-effective for the natural world.  It should be made or drawn from sustainable materials rather than those and use up rare and irreplaceable resources, as well as ravaging other natural lives and their habitats.

Altogether, the “pricing” of sustainable technology must follow an emphatically different model from technology based on  “profit” for its developers (or in the case of patents on particular natural products, its self–proclaimed “discoverers”).  As discussed in the “The Trouble with Progress”, technology driven by the profit motive has succeeded only in ravaging the planet and undermining our relationships with other lives, human and more than human–and thus is the opposite of sustainable options.


We belong to this world, whose history has gifted us with our intelligence and our capacity for care. We must accept this tremendous gift and bear it with the honor it deserves for the sake of  all the lives who share our world.


It Can be Done

Polyface Farm, for instance, has developed an agricultural model that fulfills all of these criteria.

Gaviotas in Colombia has developed an entire community grounded in such principles, still going strong after over 40 years.

And then there are the sustained yield forest practices of the Menominee Tribe.

Any examples you want to add here?

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

The Fourth Annual Willamette River Blessing: Opposing the Readiness to Harm

By Madronna Holden

What Traditional Stories and Ceremony Can Teach us About Sustainable Technology

On April 17, 2011,  the Willamette River flowed past the EWEB Plaza in Eugene, Oregon,  in great swells, rolling up over its banks and swirling through wetlands of willows– full of of itself for the annual river blessing led by Siletz Takelma elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim, chair of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers.

For 22,000 years, Grandma Aggie told those gathered to take part in the blessing ceremony, her Takelma ancestors had lived in the Rogue River valley south of here, which they felt the Creator had shaped especially for them.

It was with “sick hearts”, a Rogue River man explained, that they moved at the hands of soldiers to the Siletz Reservation so many miles away. It was a sickness, an early reservation official wrote, that was serious indeed– since many who suffered it died as a result.  One man begged that if he might just have one more look at his land, he would be satisfied. But these are the points of history I am adding here. Grandma Aggie doesn’t call attention to them.

She has no rancor over this:  what is done is done, she says, and none of us were there.  Now we need to go forward in love for one another—and care for the earth that sustains us all. Over a century after her people were confined on the reservation surrounded by military forts to prevent them from attempting to go home, Grandma Aggie felt the call of the land and returned to live in her people’s homeland, reviving the ancient salmon ceremony there.

Her people’s ancient story of the salmon, Grandma Aggie says. taught her the salmon were people just like us who sacrifice themselves for our well-being.  It was this story that motivated her to dedicate herself to freeing the local rivers of dams and pollution.  Now all the dams are removed from the Rogue and it runs free its entire length.

But there is much yet to do to care for the waters of the world yet.

Grandma Aggie is fond of saying that we are all “water babies”—and through the water that gives us life we are all connected.  Thus she honors the requests of  communities  throughout the Northwest to bless their local rivers; bringing the message that working for the well-being of the rivers is working for our own well-being.

She warns us not to complain of the rain that settled over the Northwest this past week, but to speak well of water that is precious—and disappearing from so many parts of the world where she and the indigenous grandmothers have traveled. How we speak of the rain, she said, is how we speak to the water in ourselves.

As we circle close by the river and Grandma Aggie pours into it the waters of the other rivers of the world she has visited, I am struck by the simplicity and reverence of the traditions represented here.  A man at Grandma’s side prays to be one of the men who supports the work of the grandmothers, as men everywhere should be– and he tries to teach his boys.  Many who speak are choked with tears as they speak of their grief for the hurting earth and ask forgiveness of the living water for allowing its pollution.

We should treat the water as a “god”, Grandma Aggie tells us, with the reverence due that which gives us life.

Lest some of us get caught up in struggles over terms, we might use Grandma Aggie’s model of openness as she participates in the ceremonies of the other indigenous grandmothers, praying to the Creator with these words, “These ways are not my ways, but help me to gain something from them, too.”

Treating water as a “god” means listening to the natural world in a way that has pragmatic pay offs.  Grandma Aggie predicted the problems with disease among hatchery salmon before modern science verified it.

The people who lived with their land for 22,000 years expressed the vital humility that allowed them to attend to the natural lives that sustained them–and thus to live in a way that supported the abundance and fertility of their lands.

“Grandfather, help us keep the rivers clean for the sake of all the swimmers”, Grandma Aggie prays, as an eagle circles overhead, swallows circle the water in droves (flitting away after the ceremony), and ducks  bobble up on the bubbling water as if to learn closer to her words. At their presence, Grandma Aggie smiles the same smile she gives to children when she says she is “everybody’s Grandma”.

And for that moment, we are all part of a web of life that is whole.

Grandma Aggie’s stance exemplifies a technology of reverence:  a technology that brings lives together.  If technology’s purpose is to extend our reach in the world, sustainable technology should extend our sight as well.  Thus the story-technology of Grandma Aggie’s people reminds us that what we do touches other lives that are like our own in value and meaning—and upon which our own lives depend.

It is a technology that extends human reach by strengthening bonds of intimacy:  and thus motivating humans to act in a way that protects the precious fabric of life—a goal which Grandma Aggie specifically reminds us

Last October, the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers were in Japan, in the precise location where the devastating earthquake was to strike—and the continuing nuclear emergency emerged. In the wake of those disasters, Grandma Aggie recalls that the Japanese peoples were the most generous and hospitable she has ever met.  It is one way to understand this tragedy: to see it as happening to people with kind human faces.  Grandma Aggie told me of meeting another “Aggie” in Japan. This Aggie told Grandma Aggie she had dreamt of her coming and was anxious to meet her, since she bore the same name.

There is a profound metaphor in this story Aggie shares with simple delight: an understanding that each of us has a potential namesake in the lands we conceive of as most distant– and in the lives we might think of as different from our own human ones– like the salmon.  Shortly before, she reminded me again how hearing that the salmon were people who sacrificed themselves to sustain human lives impelled her to care for the river and its swimmers.

It was such traditional stories that created culture:  that gave us  physically puny humans the edge in adaptation. If this past teaches us anything, it is that the tools we use should bring us closer to understanding the long term and long rang results of our actions.

Blessing the river is that kind of technology: a ceremony that reminds us of our connection to one another and to the vital sources of our lives. It is about “spreading the word”, as Grandma Aggie asks us to do on leaving the ceremony—“so that everyone will know what went on here”.  So that everyone can join this community, feeling the hope and purpose of caring for the water that sustains us all.

By this criterion our contemporary technology doesn’t always fare so well.  Instead of making the results of our actions more visible to us, it cushions us from them.  We don’t understand the vulnerability of our water when we just turn on a faucet to have it magically appear.

Shortly after the nuclear accident at Fukushima, a newscaster questioned a local man who lamented that since radiation is invisible, local people had no idea how to respond to it.  This is not just the nature of radiation:  it is the way in which nuclear technology has been put into practice, based on secrecy and distancing, as detailed in too many unfortunate incidents in what Arjun Makhijani, co-editor of the MIT Press publication, Nuclear Wasteland, terms the  “readiness to harm”. 

We express such a “readiness to harm” toward those we think less valuable than ourselves—or those who are invisible to us.  If sustainable technology has made the the invisible visible, gives voice to the voiceless (in Grandma Aggie’s words), then technology that truncates our vision does the opposite:  leading to the multiple crises that come as unpleasant surprises to us in the present age.

Our contemporary crises and the contrasting indigenous success challenge us to re-shape our technology to make the results of our actions transparent, to extend our reach and power in the world even as we extend our compassion and wisdom.

Attending to the Whole: Addressing the Tragedy of the Commons

By Madronna Holden

Garret Hardin’s much cited essay, “Tragedy of the Commons”, asserts that as humans maximize their individual self-interest, they inevitably destroy the natural commons that sustains them.  Hardin used the theoretical example of a pasture, assuming individual grazers would more strongly weight the benefits to themselves in grazing more sheep as against the benefits to the commons in holding back — thus overgrazing their land to destruction.

If Hardin had used real history instead of his postulated example,  he might have revised his assumption about the inevitable destruction of human resources shared in common. In traditionally shared commons, many cultures characteristically  monitor and self-regulate their activity to protect their subsistence base, as in the case of Mongolian horse pasture  and tribal fisheries in the indigenous Pacific Northwest. The latter are two examples pointed out by three distinguished professors in the fields of agribusiness, ecology and property law in their essay, “Tragedy of Ecosystem Services”.

Humans have not always been so stupid as to destroy the natural commons that sustains them —given that they both recognize it as their means of survival and have the power to regulate it as a community.  On the other hand, humans who don’t have knowledge of the results of their actions on the commons may act so as to undermine its survival– and their own. Jared Diamond illustrates such cases of ecological failure in his book, Collapse.

But given good information and the power to implement community choices accordingly, humans have designed subsistence arrangements sustainable for hundreds or thousands of years—as did the terrace-farmers in New Guinea with which Diamond had firsthand experience.

Today, the “tragedy of the commons” results from the intersection of scarcity, powerlessness, and social competition – in which one person’s gain becomes another’s loss.  What began the massive post-industrial erosion of the commons in Europe were the seventeenth century enclosure and land privatization laws, creating scarcity for small grazers and setting them in competition with one another.  At the same time that this policy filled the coffers of a few, it took away the power of the community to recognize their common interests and care for their lands together.

Enclosure laws, purported to “protect” local farmers, actually drove them off their land, as it did the James family, whose members came to the US after they lost their own land as a result.  It was a memory so potent as to be passed through several generations — and communicated to me when I interviewed James family members on Grand Mound Prairie, Washington, over two hundred years later.

The tragedy of the commons derives not from human nature –or a human presence on the land which is inevitably destructive– but from systems that work against doing the right thing, ecologically speaking–by obscuring knowledge of the importance of natural systems to our survival, for instance.

Or by creating an economic system that robs individuals of ecologically sound alternatives.  In response to the essay  on “partnering with the natural world”  on this site, Darcy Myers gives the example of a woman in Haiti who recognizes the destructive ecological consequences of her actions, but cannot survive by doing otherwise.

I once asked a group of dislocated workers (former loggers) in a class I taught how many would support clear cutting if they were given an economic alternative.  If they saw a different means with which to support their families, not a one would have chosen to clear-cut the land.

According to “The Tragedy of Ecosystem Services” degradation of natural processes priced at 33 trillion annually (in 1994 dollars) results from a failure to recognize and value them. Simply put, in a system which prioritizes making money, protecting the commons doesn’t.  Services created by natural processes but unvalued in the present market system include clean water, clean air, stable weather patterns, carbon sequestration in forests, and soil fertility.

In this article, C. L. Lant, J. B. Ruhl, and S.E. Kraft outline three ways humans have historically treated “ecosystem services”: private property law, government regulation, and common law.

They  concur with the ample documentation that indicates current US private property law is inevitably regressive in terms of care for the commons.

Government regulation is an important stop-gap to save resources that might otherwise be lost forever. But in its overriding of local decision-making, such regulation may lead not only to resistance on the part of local communities,  but to oppositions between interest groups that obscure recognition of the commons itself.

The third way of caring for “ecosystem services” is by taking up the precedent of common law, which has fallen by wayside in the emphasis on private property in the US legal system since the nineteenth century.  The Mongolian pasturage and northwest fishing situations are models of such common law—as are older European grazing traditions.

The authors of this article propose that the best way for such common law to be developed and enforced is by local communities within particular ecosystems.  There are interesting parallels between such common law and the legal “rights of nature”, since both set up legal rights for the protection of natural commons.

Though these authors have no illusions about the shift in cultural values and economic habits such common law might require, they insist we cannot continue to ignore the value of natural systems that sustain our lives —letting them be grabbed and used up by whomever can do so.

Many indigenous cultural traditions see the natural commons as priceless—and their protection as taking precedence over individual human rights to amass wealth, for instance.  These traditions  express holistic worldviews that respect the intrinsic value of all earthly life–extending their sense of family to all species in the circle of time that includes, as Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe framed it, ” a community of the living, the dead and the unborn.”

A vision of the whole that extends our awareness and responsibility arms us to reverse the tragedy of the commons.

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors when quoted)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

“The eyes of the world are looking at you”: earthly trancendence

By Madronna Holden

I could swear that this honeybee above looked up from her busy work on the oregano this morning to look back at me.

It might be anthropomorphic to assume that there is something such as curiosity among the bees, but I have seen them investigate a novel situation in their hive with the same level of enthusiastic activity as any mammal might express.

When I lift the lid to peer into the hive out of my own curiosity, a number of the bees look back at me– just watching.

At the same time that I don’t want to pretend that I can read their motives from my human perspective, I also don’t want to mechanize these bees.  Likely they are attracted by my movement, but I would prefer not to see their watching me as nothing but a reflex action.

During our rainy spring I twice saw different bees pause on their trips into the hive to help another bee into an upright position after she had slid on the wet surface and landed struggling and beached on her back.   I don’t know how to explain this in mechanical terms– nor do I want to.

Mythologist James Hillman once remarked that we humans (at least in contemporary Western society) are prone to fear what we can’t control– and since the insects seem the least controllable of all species to us, we declare war on them with pesticides– so obsessed in our self-appointed task of destroying them we overlook the ways we are harming our own children in the process.

Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee had a different view of things in his tradition.  He used to tell me his people emphasized that if we wanted to live long on the earth–as both individuals and cultures, we should live mindfully of the fact that the “eyes of the world are looking at us”– all the eyes of the earth. And it was what they saw of our actions that  led to our long or short survival on this earth.

Many of us in contemporary industrial society don’t look for natural life to be overseeing and judging us– certainly we don’t live accordingly.  But it is not a bad thing to aim for. Those who lived sustainably for ten thousand years on this land  felt the necessity of upholding a standard of behavior of which more than human life approved.

And the way they treated this valley certainly did better for it than we have done in the last 200 years.

The Chewong of Malaysia traditionally saw it this way:  each species has its own way of seeing the world– its own worldview.  Many human cultures have used their sense of such diversity as they observed it in other species to teach them how to live full human lives.

In the quest for spirit powers in adolescent initiation rites throughout the world, a human youth sought an alliance with a more than human life whose power and insight would guide their adult life.

Such alliances between the human and more than human world are mysterious– since the lives of these others have more to them than we can explain in human terms alone.

Who am I to say why a white bird came to light in the top of the cedar my mother loved during the last year of her life?  That bird followed her movements, sitting by turn in the tree facing her bed and the one looking down at her from the kitchen skylight.

I do know that she cherished and defended those cedars in which that bird alighted. She watched the sun touch their tips each day, signaling the morning she hailed with joy.

She and my father had refused to move into this house unless its builders found a way to construct  it without taking down those trees. The builders resisted, wanting the easiest way.

My parents moved into temporary quarters after they sold their old house, waiting out the developers for months until they found a way way to build  that house and protect those trees at the same time.

There was substantial history behind my mother’s words,”When I’m gone, don’t let them take the trees.”

Though she was often bedridden during the last years of her life, pulling herself into a wheelchair with great effort to move through the house, I don’t– nor do I know anyone who did– think of her as diminished.

Instead, all those who knew her experienced her the uprightness and power.  Her spirit had a comparable rootedness, generosity and wisdom to those ancient trees that she had guarded–and now watched over her.

Our usual idea of transcendence is moving to a world beyond this one.  But there is also transcendence of a different kind– transcendence that my mother achieved through the trees that held her spirit upright as her body folded in on itself with crippling arthritis.

My mother also loved butterflies.  I have a pin that belonged to her of an enameled red butterfly.  I never saw such a butterfly in real life until this past week, when a red butterfly of the same hue appeared at my house twice– once pausing a few inches from me so that I could inspect it at leisure.

I have not seen the like of it in the 35 years I have lived in this house– nor have I so far been able to find anyone who can identify it.  (If anyone out there has any ideas, let me know).

I could say that after 35 years of allowing this small patch of ground defined as “my” yard to  flourish without poisons, some special things have moved in. That is certainly a gift.

But it takes no explanation at all to enjoy the fact that the color of the butterfly– however it arrived in my yard– matches the color of the butterfly on my mother’s pin.

I want the stories that I  know of this world to be , like this one, stories that strengthen our reciprocal place in the circle of life. I want to tell stories of a living world that looks back at me even as I look at it– in which there are lessons to be learned from both kinds of reflection.

This is my kind of science. The science that tenderly observes a world that is also looking back at us:  the science that tells us how to express our human potential through intimacy with the more than human world.

The humblest creatures have essential things to teach us not only about our connections with them, but about ourselves.

I like to think how much we can learn by assuming a comparable humility of our own.

This essay, along with other indicated material on this site other than comments (which should be attributed to their authors)  is copyright by Madronna Holden.  Please feel free to link here, but any part of this essay may be used off site only with attribution and permission.

Biodiversity in the Pacific Northwest: Lessons from a Living Land

By Madronna Holden

One reviewer of a manuscript I wrote changed the Upper and Lower Chehalis peoples into the “North” and “South” Chehalis, in spite of the fact that these peoples traditionally lived (and still live today) along a river that runs east to west.  This man obviously thought that since north is “up” on a map, the Upper Chehalis must live north of the Lower Chehalis, imposing a standard modern map of the land and its squared off directions on the land.

Monoculture stems from this same type of thinking:  pick a favorite crop and impose it on the land according to your own  map of what the land should produce– in spite of the nature of the land itself.  Then all else becomes a weed—the dandelion, for instance, becomes the occasion for dangerous pesticide use in home lawns.

Wheat farming in the nineteenth century Willamette Valley was an example of this tactic. Planting wheat throughout the valley not only meant tremendous labor inputs to clear land and sustain this crop, but subjected the farmers to the vagaries of the national wheat market—leading to a cycle of boom and bust in the local economy.

The potato certainly seemed like a great crop to plant in nineteenth century Ireland—until the notorious potato blight hit and there was mass starvation, since there was nothing else to survive on.  Such examples give us cautionary lessons in looking to a “magic bullet”,  such as a single genetically engineered crop, to meet our agricultural needs.

The potato blight did not hit Peru with such devastation as it did in Ireland.  In Peru, farmers grow dozens of types of potatoes, drawn from hedgerows that flourish as wild seed sources. As with such hedgerows—once prominent in Britain and continental Europe as well– the strategies of Northwest indigenous ecological management entailed fostering the ecological “edges”where diversity flourished between habitats.

The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest were “salmon people”, but they were not salmon only people.  Situated as they were in the midst the richness of local salmon runs, they still had diverse subsistence strategies to complement taking of salmon. Not incidentally, this allowed them to limit their taking of the salmon in order to sustain them.

In negotiating treaties with the US government, native representatives insisted on rights to traditional subsistence resources that included an encompassing diversity.  To the extent that they could make this clear in the rudimentary vocabulary of the Chinook jargon in which negotiations were conducted, elders at the Cosmopolis treaty proceedings on Grays Harbor asked to reserve for their peoples not only their favorite salmon streams but cranberry bogs, oyster beds, prairies where they took camas and deer, and beaches where they took advantage of the whales that washed ashore.

Those who insisted on maintaining these diverse subsistence strategies had generations of experience to advise them. In traditional times if a salmon run were poor, there were sturgeon, seal, clams, smelt, and eel from the rivers and sea—and elk, deer, ducks, geese, and rabbit from the adjoining hills and prairies.

But it was the vast array of vegetable roots and seeds, ferns, berries and greens that most indicates the biodiversity of native subsistence strategies.  In 1945, Erna Gunther documented the use of ninety-seven local plants remembered by Puget Sound peoples– likely a mere fraction of those once used by peoples relocated from traditional lands.

East of the Cascades, an ethnography done by James Teit (again, after much change in traditional subsistence methods) among the Thompson Indians found 46 stems, leaves and flowering tops “used extensively” for food,  another 26 eaten as root crops, 41 more eaten as fruits and berries, and 6 eaten as nuts and seeds.  That is a total of 129 different vegetable foods utilized for food alone.

Additionally, these people used 176 plants for medicines, chewed 9 species, used 13 for non-medicinal drinks, 7 for smoking,  53 for manufacture, 13 for making dyes and paints, 7 for scents, and 16 for various forms of purification.

They gave at least 23 plants a special place in their traditional folklore and mythology and recognized 29 more as good food for the animals that shared their landscape.

Such biodiversity expresses how sustainable human cultures are interwoven in reciprocal independence with the natural world. All nature operates in this fashion. If we wish to honor and nourish the salmon, it is necessary to protect their habitat, just as the decaying bodies  of spawned salmon feed so many other lives.

In the traditions of indigenous northwesterners, it is also necessary to nourish one another.  In Western Washington, potlatch feasts held both within and between tribes helped redistribute food to those without resources.  Sharing between the well to do and the less well to do was institutionalized by such potlatches, in which the wealthy affirmed their social status by giving away goods and food to others.  Most villages in Western Washington had a community potlatch house in which such ceremonies were held.

In Lower Chehalis elder Henry Cultee’s words, “This was a country that was free to anybody and if you a different tribe, they let you go up, they don’t bar nobody.  If you hungry for something, you go out and get it.”

With permission, that is, from its caretakers– the particular people who were “rooted to the ground” in each locale– and undertook care for their land, establishing limits on usage of particular plants and animals during particular years or seasons.

In this context, the Lower Chehalis seasonally moved into Chinook territory to fish the Columbia River; the Upper Chehalis moved into Nisqually and Mud Bay territory to fish the Sound.  At particular times of the year, the Chinook, Cowlitz, and Quinault came to the Lower Chehalis territory on Grays Harbor to obtain seal. In July and August the Chinook and Cowlitz came to Lower Chehalis territory once again to fish for sturgeon.  Along with the Satsop, they all dug clams on the beach there. In turn, the Lower Chehalis would travel to Cowlitz territory to dip smelt when they ran in the winter.

In contrast to fences, which Cultee observed stopped the flow of life on the land, native maps honored the diverse mixture of space, time and life in such flows of people into and out of one another’s territories.

Cultee inherited the knowledge of the Harbor’s “fish trails” from his people. That knowledge told him not only where the fish swam, but when. He quipped that non-Indians might think him lazy, since he did not always get up at dawn to go out fishing. But he didn’t see any point in fishing when the fish weren’t there.  Thus though he worked less hours than some others, he caught more fish.

An Upper Chehalis grandmother told me her people followed “streams of trees”, noting how communities of plants seeded themselves together. Following such “streams”, one would never get lost on the land.

Near Florence, Oregon a Siuslaw elder instructed a young pioneer boy to listen to the distinct voices of the various watercourses—since if one learned to recognize these voices, one would always know where one was on the land.

In such maps of the land, there was neither clock time nor squared survey grids that caused “up” to be “north”, but an intersection of time, space, and the diversity of life.

The richness of these maps reflects the richness of a living land—to which it was necessary to attend with care.  The biodiverse subsistence strategies that flow from such observations illustrate the understanding that nothing in the natural world nourishes itself.

Biodiversity in indigenous subsistence strategies is directly linked to establishing a partnership with the land that follows nature’s models rather than trying to dominate it.

It is a pragmatic approach.

A UN conference recently convened in Brussels cited the largest study ever done comparing biodiverse  “ecological” agriculture (which avoids chemical inputs as well as genetically engineered seed) to conventional agriculture. In 286 projects in 57 developing countries, ecological agricultural outproduced conventional “industrial” agriculture by an average of 79 per cent.

The ecological methods also led to reclamation of degraded land, as in the area formerly known as the “Desert of Tanzania”, where  agroforestry rehabilitated 350,000 hectares  in two decades–while substantially raising local household income.

Besides avoiding chemical inputs, ecological agriculture uses diverse local seed, and grows a number of crops together, including mixing trees with other crops. This is the method by which the New Agricultural Movement in Bangladesh reclaimed their own land in the wake of the failed “high yield rice”– by combining forest, farm, rice paddies and animal husbandry on the same land.

Notably, in putting forests back,  “ecological agriculture” reverses the trend which causes conventional agriculture to produce 14 per cent of annual global carbon emissions and to add another 19 per cent through the deforestation it demands.

Nature does not “monocrop”.   And neither should we.

In a world with a burgeoning human population to feed–and with rapidly degrading agricultural land and climate change linked to industrial monoculture, we need biodiverse alternatives.

This essay is copyright 2010 by Madronna Holden.  Feel free to link here, but any part of it may be used off site only with attribution and permission.


The Elephant in our Living Room, the BP Oil Spill, and Albert Einstein

By Madronna Holden

Shortly after the end of World War II, Albert Einstein wrote an essay in which he predicted the unhappy future of “pure capitalism” or “economic anarchy”. as he called it.[1] He observed that the system based on individual competition for profit derives from a history of conquest.  As such, it expresses the “predatory stage” of human development which we must transcend if we are to survive.

A worldview which teaches us to value individual profit-taking at the expense of our fellows causes us to resent the society we inevitably also rely on—and anyone’s telling us what to do with our money is considered a major affront.  This is the logic of those who opposed a national health plan on the grounds that they might have to join it—even if it meant their families would have security from health catastrophes that can easily become economies catastrophes.

In this perspective, government is perceived as bad, since it is social. There is no sense that it might actually do something good for us. This worldview also leads us to declare hands off the money makers, who are supposed to be doing something good and essential for society.

It is this worldview that underlies the declaration of corporations as legal “persons”. The Supreme Court recently asserted such corporate “persons” had the protections of the first amendment to free speech—and could thus spend as much as they wished on advertising in political campaigns.

This decision brings us closer to Einstein’s prediction that “private capitalists” would inevitably “come to control… the main sources of information (press, radio, education).”  Corporate “freedom of speech” also extends to advertising pharmaceuticals on television in the US—and a growing push to allow this in other countries such as Britain.  Today US television networks, news media, newspapers, book publishers and even phone and internet delivery systems are owned by a handful of corporate entities, which increasingly control not only advertising, but news and other program content.

However, these corporate “persons” don’t follow the rules that human persons have to. In their application for offshore drilling permits, BP was excused from submitting an emergency plan to deal with an accident like the one currently fouling the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.  The oil gushing into the Gulf is every bit as visible as the proverbial elephant in the living room as a wake up call that we need to change course. Yet in the month since the oil began gushing out of BP’s deep wells, regulators have approved 27 more offshore drilling projects, including 2 for BP. 26 of these received environmental exemptions.

Further, this comes in the wake of revelations of sex, drug use, and graft among Interior Department regulators.

If an individual human paid officials for the privilege of ignoring traffic signals on a busy street, we would be rightly outraged. We would be even more outraged if their exemption from the law resulted in the deaths of eleven individuals and uncounted members of other species.

So why do we excuse corporate “persons” from culpability here?  The answer can only be Einstein’s:  when we live in a capitalist society in which profit-making rules the day, we give unthinking leeway to those making the profits.

For instance, we have a “revolving door” through which corporate executives go to and from the agencies that are supposed to be regulating them. This was the subject of an exposé in the Ecologist—though the issue in which this exposé was to appear was quashed in press after legal threats from Monsanto.

The “revolving door” is exemplified by George Bush’s appointment of Linda Fisher, a former executive vice president at Monsanto, as deputy administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency. The documentary, The Future of Food, notes that Fisher has been back and forth between Monsanto and the EPA three times.

It is no surprise that under such leadership The Union of Concerned Scientists found that researchers in federal regulatory agencies are consistently pressured by their superiors to hide their research findings if they are unfavorable to industry.  We owe a debt of gratitude to the Union as well as “Integrity in Science” for revealing the funding sources of contemporary researchers– facing head on the question of just how independent scientific research can be when it is funded by pharmaceuticals or agribusiness.

In his article, Einstein laments the way our educational system stokes the “exaggerated competitive attitude” in its students, who are  “trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for future careers”.  In a follow up comment to the post in which former gmo researcher speaks out about the shaky scientific standards of that research, he observes this process firsthand: “They may think the company is totally evil and a threat to the planet, but when their bank account starts filling up, the next thing you know, they’re in a suit at a board meeting discussing profit objectives for the next quarter.”

The biotech, pharmaceutical and chemical industries (many of which share board members) not only hire researchers but bribe them outright.  They have blatantly tampered with the scientific peer review process, paying researchers to write articles and even draw up experiments in support of their products whose resulted are fudged.  In one case, Merck published an entire fake academic journal.

There are still the independent scientists worthy of the name.  The data they developed has led particular chemicals to be listed by the EPA as known, probable or suspected carcinogens. However, these chemicals are still marketed in the US—if not in the EU, where their regulatory system prioritizes human health over profit.

Our own lack of regulation here illustrates what happens when an economy is at odds with the well being of its people. Put through the wringer of the competitive profit motive, the laudable idea of freedom for all ends up as privilege for the few.

Take, for instance, the case of one of the hundreds of farmers sued by Monsanto for having genetically engineered seeds in their field as a result of wind drift.  In the Future of Food one of these farmers observes that once upon a time  if your cow trampled your neighbor’s field, you were responsible for the damage since you were responsible for the fence to keep your cow  confined. But in the context of current corporate privilege, the farmer is responsible not only for keeping genetically engineered seed out of his field, but sued for the privilege of having it trample his crop.

In a society in which competitive profit-making rules, the profits of a few inevitably wind up trumping the costs to the many. The President’s Cancer Panel notes the health care expenses for those who contract cancer from environmental causes, for instance.

No less than the father of capitalist theory, Adam Smith, chronicled his worry that capitalism would set societies adrift in the valueless “economic anarchy” that Einstein predicted.  Smith resolved this dilemma with the idea that free markets would express social “preferences” and thus exert ethical constraints on doing business.

Frances Moore Lappé’s response to the idea that free markets enforce social ethics is like Gandhi’s response to Western civilization, “I think it would be a good idea”.

She notes that the free markets are a fiction:  they don’t respond to social preferences– they respond to money.  At a talk at Linfield College, she noted that “eating is right up there in terms of human preferences”, but when the numbers of hungry people are growing worldwide, it is obvious the current market system is not responding to human preferences.

Neither is the market for employment. The market in which we sell our labor is not determined by the usefulness of our work to society or its satisfaction to ourselves— but by the ability of our employers to make money.  The handful of US corporations currently controlling the production, transportation, processing, and marketing of food argue that they are doing something useful to society. They are feeding us. But they are feeding us junk food that is unsustainably raised using inhumane practices for farm workers as well as for farm animals.

The argument that large corporations are doing something essential because they are making a profit ignores the elephants they themselves are riding on:  their workers and the natural world.  If we don’t care for these, we will have no economy, growth or no growth, innovation or no innovation.

To do otherwise is following the logic of a bank robber who tells us if we don’t hand over the money, the system will collapse.  If we don’t turn over the money, it will certainly collapse for the bank robber.  But there is economic blackmail that makes it harder for us to respond to this as we should. The weapon large corporations are holding on us is our ability to hold down a job and to feed ourselves and our families.

But the idea that these corporations are “too big to fail” only holds if there is no alternative. It only hold, that is, if we assume they have a  monopoly on  providing for our needs–if there is no other way to get jobs or food but through them.

But this doesn’t jive with the facts. The folks at Good Jobs First have researched the ways in which subsidies for corporations result in economic losses for communities that hand them over. Notably, communities that have the most stringent environmental and labor regulations also have the best family wage jobs.  In “Regulate Me, Please”, on CSwire’s responsible business forum, CEO Jeffrey Hollender argues the case that “regulation is good for business”.

Political democracy entails economic democracy, in which we have regulations that level the playing field so that the power of one person/one vote is not subverted by the money behind a corporate “person’s” vote.

Regulation is not a dirty word. But blackmail—economic or political—is.  So are poverty, pollution, addiction, obesity, and cancer.

Einstein made some dire predictions for the future of “pure” capitalism.  But he also had a vision, based on the cross-cultural history of humankind which tells us how adaptable and creative we are.

Once we acknowledge the elephant in our living room, we can send it back to the jungle and busy ourselves creating a society based on care,  justice and sustainability–  in which we celebrate both our individual potential and our connections to one another.


Here are some suggestions as to what can individuals do to change the corporate power that is currently undermining our democracy.

  1. We can follow our political process carefully and support efforts to place limits on campaign spending –or publicly fund elections—and to reveal sources of funding for candidates or initiatives.
  2. We can support community job creation, “microenterprises” on the model of the Grameen Bank, which won the 2006 Nobel Prize for fostering development from the ground up.
  3. We can support small farmers and organics and community co-ops that do labor exchanges, seed saving, sustainable farming and urban gardening.
  4. We can buy products –and only those products– that are good for us, the environment, and our children.
  5. We can lend our support to alternatives that undermine the idea of profit first not only with the dollars we spend, but with our interest and personal presence, our intelligence and creativity.
  6. We can do whatever possible to change our society from an egoistical one to a caring one in our daily choices.

In short, we can design as many ways as possible in which we refuse to be bought.


For an update of the millions-strong movements all over the US to “turn anger into action” in response to the oil spill, check out this essay in Sarah van Gelder’s blog for YES magazine.


[1] I want to acknowledge Molly Saranpaa, who sent me a copy of Einstein’s article just as I was developing this essay on the same topic.

Beyond damage control: getting the future we want

By Madronna Holden

In the face of emergencies like the Gulf oil spill, many of us feel like the man in the traditional story who pulls one drowning man after another out of the river.

But even as he reaches the end of his energy and wits, he sees another man running upriver to stop the one pushing all these people into the river in the first place.

Though in an emergency, it may seem that damage control is all we can, so, we should never let it replace our vision—or our rational perceptions of what needs to be done.

Community planner Eben Fodor, who is doing an independent evaluation of “Envision Eugene”,  Eugene’s Comprehensive Lands Assessment, observed in a South Eugene Neighbors meeting last night that such damage control has replaced vision in this process. Thus, instead of asking how to create a vital and thriving community of humans and nature, we must figure out how to eke out sustainability and cut carbon emissions in the context of the same growth-oriented development model that has caused our problems in the first place.

In this context, we can only pull as many as possible out of the river—and community members fight with one other over which are the most important to keep from drowning.

As innovative environmental designer William McDonough has put it, such a “visioning” process is like setting a goal of going 20 miles per hour rather than 30 in the wrong direction.

What we really need to do is turn around.

Robert Emmonds of Lane County Landwatch, also at the neighborhood meeting, outlined the ideas that might make this happen– with a primary goal of matching human use to the character of the land. Fitting people’s actions to the land rather than attempting remake the land to fit human convenience is an ancient and effective strategy in human history.  One that develop a partnership between humans and their land.

Whether or not we agree with its details, this proposal deserves to be on the table– which cannot happen, since the comprehensive plan is working under the constraints set out by the Oregon State Legislature to allow for growth.

I am glad there are those working on changing this.

As the statement of the recent global People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia points out, all peoples need the development necessary to sustain their lives. But neither the earth nor the human community can afford the current growth-oriented development strategy, which would require five planets just to accommodate the continued resource use of the current developed nations alone.

We also need to shift from damage control to rational planning in dealing with environmental health issues, according to the recently released report of the President’s Panel on Cancer.

The panel’s report noted that when forty-one per cent of US citizens will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes and nearly one in four will die from this disease–and the fastest rising cancer rate is among children– our medical rescue operation needs to look at what is happening upriver to create all these cancer victims.

The culprit is clearly environmental pollution. Thus the panel states that in order to stem the current cancer epidemic we much shift federal policy from a “reactionary” to a “precautionary” approach with respect to the over 80,000 human-made chemicals currently released into our environment. The panel has a clear and accessible list for individual and citizen actions to protect your family, your community, and your personal health—like curtailing of lawn chemical use and switching to organic foods wherever possible.

As with the cancer epidemic, current research implicates environmental toxins in the rates of obesity and diabetes among the current generation of children.  Researchers have isolated pesticides that are “obesegens”. Children exposed to this class of pesticides are more likely to grow up obese and to become diabetic.

Together, cancer, obesity and diabetes make children in this generation the first to have a predicted lifespan shorter than that of their parents.

US children are also subject to the fast food/junk food environment created by the concentrated corporate powers that produce and distribute US food. Our system of subsidies for such foods makes it more expensive for the individual consumer to buy organic, locally produced fruits and vegetables than a cheap burger. There is a painful scene in Food, Inc., in which a poor family assesses the costs of items in the fresh produce isle and rejects them all as too expensive.

Kelly Brownell, Director, Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders and the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, put it point blank:  our kids “haven’t a chance unless we curtail the junk food industry”. Not only does this industry carefully calculate salt, sugar, and fat percentages in fast food recipes to trigger addictive responses, but they use psychological and physiological research to find ways to bypass the decision-making areas of our brains and produce ads accordingly– to the tune of 100 million dollars every four days.

We pay these costs not only with our food dollars but with our health.

We also pay the costs of researching, marketing, protecting patents and fighting labeling genetically engineered foods. If we shifted to the precautionary rule with respect to these products we would not only require that they be labeled, but we would test them according to their long term effects—and require industry to foot the bill for this before they release their products into our environment.

A central reason why this does not happen is lack of oversight in regulatory agencies– as in the one that exempted BP from developing a plan for handling an accident like the one that is currently spilling as much as two and a half million gallons of oil a day into  the Gulf of Mexico– though a citizen group has a plan — a petition to stop offshore drilling.  Industry that funds research also oversees its results, leading to a scandal with regard to the scientific peer review process—an attempt to draw up a new ethics policy to keep scientific research independent.

We can see how industry might nix the publication of the study done by a scientist who found that genetically engineered  soy fed to three generations of hamsters caused sterility—and triggered gene expression for things such as hair growth inside their mouths.   In fact, the industry has worked to restrict  independent (non-industry funded) research on genetically engineered products.

But amidst all this dysfunction, there are those who are working at staying the hand of the ones sinking all the lives currently lost to cancer and diabetes. Senator Lautenberg recently introduced the Kid Safe Chemicals Act into Congressional committee. This legislation would institute a precautionary policy with regard to chemical usage in the US., following the lead of the European Union’s REACH program. The Environmental Working Group is tracing the progress of this bill and ways you can support it.

It is about time. In her congressional testimony, EPA director Lisa Jackson agreed, noting how outdated our current 1976 act is in this regard.

The old law does not even allow us to ban asbestos or to clamp down on the use of formaldehyde in construction products, so that this chemical, directly linked to asthma, is more prevalent in new construction than in houses several decades old.

“Fore-caring”—another term for the precautionary principle urged by Jackson and Lautenberg– is an essential moral act.  It is also a central pragmatic one. What, after all, is more pragmatic than protecting our own future?

Some would like to take this vision of “fore-caring” even further:  creating a society with the central value of caring.  Only a caring society would replace an economic system that rewards the acts that threaten our survival. Such a shift to a caring society is the goal of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, who plan a conference with this goal and an impressive array of speakers to be held this coming June in Washington, D.C..

They would like to invite all of you who are reading this to attend.

The network supports a constitutional amendment that states that corporations are not persons with the rights of human beings (as our law currently has it) and all US citizens have a right to a healthy environment.

A shift to a society of caring is only a return to the central value that made humans survivors for one hundred thousand years of our history. Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples gathered from around the globe at the People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia and asserted it in their statement:: “It is imperative that we forge a new system that restores harmony with nature and among human beings,”

There are too many lives of all species going down in the current river of carelessness and greed. We need not only to care for those wounded by our present policies, but to recognize what is wounding them—and develop a vision for changing that.

As the People’s Agreement on Climate Change observes, knowledge should be the shared inheritance of humanity.

So should vision.

Honoring the Water: Third Annual Willamette River Blessing led by Agnes Baker Pilgrim

Madronna Holden

Update:

Grandma Aggie’s words are featured on the theme page of the latest issue of YES magazine’s “water solutions issue”, which is full not only of ideas but good news in ways that small communities have made headway against corporate ownership.

Here are the words Grandma Aggie is fond of saying:   “We are all water babies.  It’s never too late to save the world.  Wherever you are, take care of the water- if you really want  to live”.


This past Sunday,  Takelma elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim, chair of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers came to Eugene to lead the third annual honoring of the water ceremony to bless the Willamette River.

Grandma Aggie smiles after traditional drummers from the Cottage Grove Longhouse sang and drummed to the river while she prayed.  Afterwards, others shared songs and poems in honor of the river.

Grandma Aggie reminded us we are all “water babies”, instructing us to “introduce ourselves to the water” as a way of thanking it and blessing ourselves. Each of us touched the water on the bowl in the chair beside her before she gave it back to the river along with water from all the rivers of the world she personally gathered in her  travels.

Grandma Aggie shared her concern for the rivers that she witnessed drying up in Australia in the past few years since she had last visited there.  She observed that perhaps Mother Earth is taking the water back, since we are not treating it properly.

She reminded us of all the ways water sustains and enhances our bodies and set out concrete tasks for those present, such as finding out how the water from things such as carpet cleaning gets disposed of– and making sure it does not contaminate our water in the process.

Grandma Aggie also  listed  some of the  ways in which we should continue to be grateful for the lives that supports our own, giving the example of the “one leggeds”– the trees whose bodies built her house whom she daily thanks.

She takes heart that honoring our rivers is catching on:  she has been asked to lead a similar ceremony on the Columbia and in Eastern Oregon.


In the back along the river behind Grandma Aggie you see these banners placed by the Fresh Water Trust of Corvallis in honor of Earth Day.

Each of these gorgeous banners was designed and painted by a middle school student in honor of the salmon celebrated by the traditional Tlingit story of Salmon Boy.

 

Here is a portion of the text that explains the banners:

“The Salmon River banner is inspired by a salmon trap stake, crafted and then fastened upright to a fish weir by a Tlingit trap owner who would place the stake and weir near the mouth of a salmon spawning stream. Doing this represented the highest value of respect to other humans and the valued and necessary salmon.

What would the jumping salmon see? A wonderful fully crafted representation of the Salmon Boy story, an announcement of the knowledge of and intent to abide by the requirements of that charter. But further, this is an object of great beauty and wonder, something that the salmon would appreciate in its own right as well as reflect upon the respect demonstrated by the state presenter through the exquisite quality of the carving.  In this way, it is not a representation to “lure” or “attract” or even merely a “reminder “, more a statement of intent to insure the sustainability of a species.

The Salmon Banners represent the image used on the trap stake, so in the event the salmon do return, they are given a gift of beauty to behold, offered by those how seek to sustain a relationship and welcome them back. It is a testimony to the power of the mythic charter to generate behavior by humans that respect salmon.

‘In order to understand how we treat salmon, you have to realize that we treat them like we would like to be treated.'”

-Eighty-two year old Tlingit elder James Osborne.


Any of you in the Eugene area will not want to miss the stunning exhibit, “How Water Speaks to Us” ,  at the Museum of Natural History through June 13.

How to Feed the World: Sustainable Food Production

By Madronna Holden

Updated 10. 25. 2012

“Organic farming can yield up to three times as much food as conventional farming on the same land”.

Science Daily, July 11, 2007


The quote above comes from a review of a University of Michigan study that finds that organic farming is especially important in feeding developing nations.  The video recently released (on “Food Day”:  October 25.2012) by the Food Myths program gives a solid outline of why industrial farming is not only not needed, but counter-productive in feeding the world.  In turn, if new technology, chemical inputs into agriculture, and genetic engineering will not feed the world, as I have argued elsewhere on this site, the propagation fair I attended in Eugene, Oregon illustrates what we need instead.

The fair consisted of a free exchange of plants and seeds.  It also offered free scions of hundreds of varieties of pears, apples, and plums, carefully labeled as to taste, keeping qualities, and disease hardiness.  Visitors could take these for free for grafting onto existing trees.  Or they could use root stocks and/or take advantage of the help of experienced grafters offered at cost.

Workshops entailed such topics as seed saving and winter gardening. And informational booths ranged from a focus on honeybees and native pollinators to a school gardens program.

Notably, Vandana Shiva has noted that the same kinds of fairs existed in traditionally sustainable farming areas of India, where growers (largely women) got together to trade seeds and ideas.

Here are the hallmarks of this fair that illustrate what we do need to feed the world.

Community values

This fair expressed sharing for all rather than profit for a few. The volunteer grafters, the workshop leaders, those who staffed booths and those who brought plants and seeds to give away were enthusiastic about sharing both information and food-growing resources. This contrasts sharply with Monsanto’s “terminator gene”, developed to protect its patent—which also threatens our food supply through unpredictable and uncontrollable gene migration.

The fair also expressed the value of care— for the environment, for community, and for the varieties of trees and seeds to be preserved locally.

Care is a productive value when it comes to such things. Care such as Barbara McClintock’s “speaking with the corn”, treating each plant as an individual, led to work that earned her the Nobel Prize. This echoes the care with which indigenous peoples tended their fertile “gourmand’s paradise” in the Willamette Valley:  care for both the natural lives that fed them and the human lives to come after them.

Indeed, such care sustained human communities and environments together throughout the indigenous Northwest.

It is such care that the government of Switzerland replicates in their constitution guaranteeing the “dignity” of all natural life.

Technologies

Here are the characteristics of sustainable food-producing technologies exhibited at the propagation fair.

Sustainable food-producing technologies should be place-based.

As opposed to the “one size fits all” technology of globalization, place-based technology is as flexible and particular as the individual yard into which it would be set—as special as each person’s choice of and care for a heritage tree or vegetable seed.

Such technology does not depend on a large plot of land.  As are many urban gardens today, a tree or vegetable plant can be placed in a backyard, on a parking strip, on a reclaimed vacant lot, or on a rooftop or terrace.

Seeds grown and saved from local gardens partnered with nature’s ability to adapt, rather than trying to force diverse ecological systems to adapt to human whims.

Sustainable food-producing technology should preserve biodiversity.

As Barbara Kingsolver observed, any society that relies on a single variety of an essential food source is one step from the devastating starvation suffered in the Irish potato famine when disease attacked the single kind of potato grown there.

Such a famine would not have happened in Peru, where the potato originated– and where traditional farmers grow uncounted varieties of this crop. Traditional farmers also keep wild areas open. There nature has a chance to grow whatever she wants—and farmers often find useful varieties arising in these wild places.

Maintaining this natural stock-producing area was also the practice of peasant farmers in Britain (where the hedgerows provided food to birds as well) and in Eastern Europe.

Sustainable food-producing technology should need few secondary material inputs.

Grafting needs no secondary technological inputs such as fossil fuels, pesticides and fertilizers, or expensive machinery.  Its tools are as simple as a grafting knife—and care in the hands and knowledge in the minds of those who tend grafted trees.

I would suggest that the complexity of a technology, as in the complexity of the grafting process, should center not on material input and fancy inventions, but on the complexity of knowledge and experience passed from one person to another.  Technology with this type of complexity relies not on depleting natural resources—but on the unlimited resource of human knowledge.

In an age of burgeoning human population and declining natural resources, we need this combination of complex knowledge and simple material input.

Sustainable food-producing technology should have a historical track record or careful research in terms of safety in line with the precautionary principle.

Grafting is an ancient human science. I once sat in an Arab garden on the Mount of Olives sustained by grafting techniques and local knowledge.  The caretaker of his tiny garden offered shade and comfort to guests, even as his garden offered up honey, olives, grapes and a dozen other varieties of fruit to the family that cared for it.  He told me that if something did not work on this land so densely planted that the leaves of the trees touches one another, he grafted other varieties that did.

He followed an ancient tradition that is all too little utilized in this war torn area.

Sustainable food-producing technology should have no deleterious side effects, for either the environment or other humans.

Side effects that negate the benefit of high-end technologies used in corporate farming include use of toxic chemicals and fossil fuels, drawing down the water table, and/ or carbon production.

Instead of such negative side effects, planting trees has the potential to ameliorate climate change and recharge ravaged water tables.

It is a wonderful that this process feeds us as well.

We have such technology and we can refine it.  We have no need to use technology touted as part of the “green revolution” that devastated lands such as those in Bangladesh reclaimed by the traditional and diverse farming methods of New Agricultural Moment or similarly in Mexico by Jesus Leon Santos.

It is a fool’s bargain to trade away temporary profit for a few for the destruction of the land we need to sustain us. Indeed, it is clearly irrational to give economic rewards to those who undermine the sources of our survival and spread toxins to any part of the planet we share.

By contrast, any robust economic system and the technology it develops must reward those who produce what we need for the flourishing of humans and other lives on this planet:  things such as nourishing food, secure livelihoods, clean air and water, good health, and a secure future for our children.

The more rare and precious are our natural resources, the more we must protect and care for them.