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.

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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.